New Jersey’s Monica Aksamit, 29, has been fencing since she was 9 years old. In 2016, she followed her dreams all the way to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where she won a bronze medal in a women’s saber team event.
But the experience left the 2012 Pennsylvania State University graduate in debt, so to go for the gold in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, she’s had to turn to crowdfunding site GoFundMe to raise money for travel, training, and qualifying competition expenses.
Now, after raising more than $28,000 via the site — surpassing her initial goal of $21,000 — Aksamit will be able to make a run at the Olympics once more. She will find out if she qualifies for the 2020 Summer Games by April 20.
“I haven’t even begun to process it,” said Aksamit, who lives with her mother in Morganville, Monmouth County. “It’s a huge stress factor that is just gone. I can focus on training and going to competitions instead of being like, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to get to the next place?’”
As a high-level athlete in a niche sport, Aksamit has long been familiar with the financial stress of competing. In 2016, she went into credit card debt and raised about $16,000 via another crowdfunding site, and worked a series of odd jobs to raise funds to fence in Rio.
Only recently has she begun to recover monetarily. But traveling to compete in Olympic qualifiers around the world — last year, for instance, she spent $12,600 on World Cup travel and $1,400 in registration fees, according to the GoFundMe site — keeps her finances low.
So low that in September, she saw her checking account dip to about $150, which made crowdfunding for her 2020 Olympic run “not much of a decision.”
“I don’t think you can physically start to understand what it’s like to go out and say, ‘I have no money, I need your help,’” Aksamit said. “I had so much anxiety.”
Aksamit isn’t the only Olympic athlete who has gone the crowdfunding route. As Inc. magazine wrote in 2016, more than 100 athletes in niche sports like fencing, taekwondo, and judo turned to services like GoFundMe to raise money to compete in the Rio Olympics. Today, a search on GoFundMe for “Tokyo Olympics” returns hundreds of results.
For many athletes in lesser-known sports, earning a living while trying to make it to the Olympics is difficult, Aksamit said. The U.S. Olympic Committee, for example, awarded her team $10,000 after their 2016 medal and pays her a monthly stipend of $300. Constant training and travel for competitions makes it nearly impossible to hold down a regular job. And an Olympic medal doesn’t guarantee endorsements and sponsorships.
“I went to an agent" after the 2016 Olympics. "He said, ’There are 121 medalists and you’re in a niche sport. Why should I sign you?’” Aksamit said. “People think that you’re a medalist, and all of a sudden the money is flowing. That’s not the case at all.”
Besides funds, the campaign also provided her with a little inspiration. Many people who donated, she said, left inspiring comments, telling her that they had wanted to be Olympic athletes themselves and that they were rooting for her.
“It’s like I’m not only doing this for myself,” she said. “I’m doing it for these other people who didn’t have this opportunity.”