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Jesse Thielke photo

Jesse Thielke looks on after wrestling Spenser Mango in their 59-kilogram Greco Roman match at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials, Saturday, April 9, 2016, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Heather Miller-Koch watched the price of plane tickets to Rio de Janeiro skyrocket as the first days of July came and went.

Miller-Koch hadn’t booked her flight because there was an obvious factor of uncertainty about whether she’d qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games, which formally begin with tonight’s Opening Ceremony.

Qualifying for her event, the heptathlon, took place over the final two days of the U.S. track and field trials, which spanned July 1 to 10. Therefore, athletes who secured their places on the U.S. roster earlier in the week had not only peace of mind that they’d realized their Olympic dreams, but a leg up on finalizing travel plans for those who wanted to watch them in Rio.

“They just kept going up as more and more people were qualifying,” Miller-Koch said of the airfares.

Miller-Koch, a Columbus High School graduate, ultimately qualified, finishing second in the heptathlon. Shortly thereafter, a scramble ensued to get to Rio.

While going to the Olympics is a lifelong dream fulfilled for many athletes, it is followed by the stresses and challenges of ensuring those who have provided support every step of the way are able to witness them compete on the world’s biggest stage.

Although every athlete’s travel expenses — lodging, flight, bags and food — are taken care of by Team USA, their families must foot their own bills.

Almost all of Miller-Koch’s family will be supporting her in Rio. Even Miller-Koch’s husband, Ryan Koch, who also coaches her, had to fully pay his way to Brazil and book their travel plans on a quick turnaround.

Miller-Koch’s case is a common plight for Olympic athletes, 21 of which have ties to the state of Wisconsin.

Jesse Thielke, a Germantown native and former University of Wisconsin wrestler, set up a GoFundMe page to help offset costs so his family and friends could join him in Rio.

“It would mean so much to me to have my family there to be the emotional ‘ROCK’ while I fulfill this dream as an Olympian for the USA,” Thielke wrote in his post on the GoFundMe. “Please help me support my family to Rio and the Olympic Games. All funds raised will be used for travel, lodging, airfare, and tickets to the games.”

As of Wednesday, the page had raised $13,530 of the $25,000 goal from 168 donors over the past two months.

The vast majority of Olympic athletes compete in events the sports world has deemed “non-revenue.” Take, for example, the dichotomy in lodging for most athletes compared to that of Team USA Basketball. The U.S. basketball team will stay on a luxury cruise ship. Nearly every other athlete will stay in the modest Olympic Village.

Even sponsored athletes such as Evan Jager, a former UW distance runner who is a medal favorite in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, experience a financial burden.

Jager’s family and his fiancee will accompany him to Rio. His sponsor, Nike, provides him with a travel stipend, he said, but it doesn’t come close to covering everything. He also is grateful for the two complimentary tickets each track and field athlete receives to his or her event.

“It’s a small consolation,” Jager said, “but definitely appreciated.”

Some athletes’ family members, such as Kelsey Card’s parents, were ready for just about any outcome. They knew Card, a former UW thrower and national champion who qualified in the discus, would be on the cusp of making the Olympics and developed a backup plan if things didn’t go Card’s way in her bid for a spot.

“My parents were kind of planning just in case and then (if I didn’t qualify) they could’ve used it for something else in the future,” Card said. “They’ve been thinking and planning it out for a while.”

The Card family also had another advantage: Card’s future sister-in-law, Michelle Bartsch, is the first alternate for Team USA volleyball and competed at the 2012 Games, so her fiance’s family, which will also be a part of her entourage, advised them on travel plans.

According to Card, her family will avoid some of the costs of Rio hotels and transportation by staying at an Airbnb rental located just 200 yards away from the track complex where she will compete. Airbnb is an online marketplace that enables people to list and rent vacation homes for a processing fee.

Zach Ziemek, a former UW decathlete and NCAA runner-up, said support of his family and friends means the world to him. Ziemek competed in the IAAF World Championships in Beijing last year, which provided not only an opportunity for him to compete in a high-level international meet, but the chance for his family to plan and prepare for traveling to a bigger event outside the U.S.

Joining Ziemek in Rio will be his parents, sister, girlfriend and former UW teammate Brandon Mortensen. Ziemek said it’s been a bit hectic for his family since he secured his place in Rio, but he also benefits from having proactive parents involved in the planning process.

“They’ve been scrambling around, trying to find hotels and flights and stuff,” Ziemek said. “It’s very tough. My mom is great at doing that. My dad is great at doing that. They’re really searching and they’ve been able to get some stuff done.”


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