Blog: The reality of chasing the Olympic dream as a donation-funded athlete, by Jean Spies

For those that don’t know me or what I do, my name is Jean Spies. I am an International Cyclist. Most will say I am a professional, I don’t fully agree with them.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But hear me out. Don’t professional athletes get paid? Don’t they make a stupid amount of money to kick a ball around or make a tackle? If your answer is yes, like it is for me, then you will see that international sport and professional sport is far from being the same thing. 2019 has been one of my toughest years on and off the bike. Physically, emotionally and spiritually, in every way shape and form.  It has taken me from the highs of being ranked 2nd in the world to lying on a hospital bed having emergency surgery. The huge ups and downs of this year have shaped me in ways I would never have thought possible, thus I thought I would share some of the insights of being a donation funded international athlete. 

As I said earlier, professional and international athletes are very different. This is where it gets interesting and where I feel that the lines get severely crossed in so many ways. This year (2019) so far and I say “so far”, as I have one more trip to go, I have traveled to 25 countries in total, sounds all glamorous doesn’t it, well, hey it’s really not. The inside of all airplanes looks the same and whilst your peak hour traffic jam may be on the motorway, mine is simply standing in a line waiting to get onto a flying bus filled with the weirdest smells. As much as we try and get out to sightsee (after an event), it is not what most people believe, there is no such thing as “time off” or exploring time. We get to our destination, continue training a mountain load of hours, get to the event, set up for the event (other teams have multiple people doing this part), race the event, pack up and head to the next destination and the cycle continues. Within that, there is already a huge difference in pro sport and international sport. Most of my travel is done last minute, simply because I do not have the funds to book anything in advance, an example of this right now is that I am supposed to head to South Africa in three days to apply for a visa and I still have no idea where the funds are going to come from to pay for the flight or even if the fuel I have will get me to the airport. The lifestyle I have followed over the last 3 years in order to make my Olympic dream a reality has been far from smooth sailing and I guess I have never really made it public until now. 

I think and I have been led to believe that cyclists, especially international riders in any discipline of the sport are the hardest working athletes in the world. Some may argue with me, but from my own experience, this is the case. A general rundown for me would be on average I train 6 hours a day six days a week. I spend on average 9 hours a week in the gym and the rest of the time on the track, with a few hours on the road. It seems simple, like everything it always seems simple and easy until the details and structures come into place. This is where my plea for help has come in so many times, read on to understand why.  Let me give you a cost break down of the bare minimum I need just to be “okay” to roll onto the track with every other international athlete. (Athletes who have structure and funding) I may seem a bit hefty, but really there is no other way to realistically achieve the Olympic dream, trust me I have tried.

I am for the most part based in and around the UK because of the track facilities. On average I need to use a gym 3 times a week, finding and using a facility that is appropriate (I can’t use your normal virgin active gyms) close to the track that offers a decent drop-in rate means I pay around 15pounds or R276.00 for the week. Thereafter I use the track for a minimum of 5 sessions a week at a cost of 55pounds or R1010.00 for the week, this is definitely not anything special, I am part of the normal drop-in training session where every and any Tom, Dick and Harry will arrive. It seems ridiculous when you add it all up a general training week will cost R1286 before I even add anything extra. We are looking at over R5000 a month just to be able to ride the bicycle. If I want to do a single motor pace session which is an absolute must when you are a sprinter on the international stage it will cost a minimum of 250 pounds or R4560 per hour. Let me say that again. R4560 PER HOUR.  Add just one motor-pace session for the month and it takes that amount straight up to R10 000.00 and I need a minimum of four hours of motor-pacing a week, plus some sessions are double sessions. We are fast approaching a pretty stupid amount of money just for the training I need to try and make it to the top of the sport. The reality is, in an ideal world training would cost close to R20 000 A WEEK. This is all excluding the basic human needs.

Those that have followed my journey will have heard that I live in odd places, for those that don’t know, I have lived in horse barns where I’m literally in a stable between horses. A caravan on some remote farm, in an attic and my all-time favourite place has been under the grandstands of the track that I will be competing at. Now just imagine living in those places where there is no running water or a toilet at your convenience, it becomes a pain in the arse (pun intended) when you must walk 300-400m in the snow or pouring rain to answer natures call. The upside to living like this has been, for the most part, the people who own these places have allowed me to live there for free while I am preparing for my next event. Has that glamor and idealist bubble burst yet? This really isn’t as easy as social media and mainstream professional sports makes it look to be.

The one part I have left out has been living expenses. Feeding a growing boy (5000 calories a day) isn’t cheap and only gets more expensive especially when you have to eat right, now yes, we can get hung up on the eat right part but for me it’s simple, all food types in moderation and as fresh as possible. It comes to about 100 pounds or R1840 a week at least. Now don’t forget the supplements. As silly as it sounds as I do have a supplement sponsor, reality with that is I only get something from them when I am in South Africa as the logistics costs don’t allow them to send it out of SA. This begs the question can I afford that cup of coffee that I would love to have right about now? Now that we have covered the cost of basic living and training, we are yet to touch on the cost of travel, racing, and equipment. (maybe that’s for another time?)

As I mentioned earlier in this thread, I have been to 25 countries this year. The last four have been Scotland, Switzerland, Hong Kong and New Zealand. Three of these four have been for the World Cups where I have been on the hunt for UCI points for the Olympic Qualification. Most of the time when we travel and race we do not take the event package offered by the organizers as this costs a small fortune. So we rough it as usual. Generally, we will stay in an air BnB and use public transport or walk to get where we need to be. This was no different. Without going into too much detail the final cost of this short racing stint was 6000 pounds, a whopping R110 106.00 this is with one of our hosts giving us accommodation for free as she is part of the international racing community. You may be asking how is there three World Cups but yet four countries in the stint? P.S don’t forget the training there too.  The fourth country was Switzerland, Aigle to be exact. The home of cycling, this is where the UCI is based. I had the privilege of training with the elite sprint group that is based there. This was a short 2-week training stint that in my opinion gave me the results that I got in HK and NZ 13th and 21st respectively. This trip to Switzerland proved to be far more valuable than we initially thought.

I have subsequently been invited back to the UCI as a fulltime boarding athlete for the season of 2020, leading up to the Olympics. This is a huge step for me as a donation-funded and private funded athlete. This gives me the opportunity to train like the top athletes I face, on a more consistent basis. At the UCI the riders that are training there are all in a pretty similar situation to me, none of them have a federation with an infrastructure to develop them into Olympians thus they train as a group like any of the top nation systems. They have an Olympian as a coach and all the bells and whistles needed for the mammoth task of being the best. This is the perfect environment for me to do my final prep to become an Olympian. The difficult part is the cost is on my own onus. R30 000 a month, which includes all training – that is with motor-pace sessions pretty much daily, food and lodging. This sum is a lot more cost-effective and a logical opportunity to accept.

Unfortunately, on top of this cost, there are still the last few qualification races that are needed to finish off this two-year process. These are the Continental championships in Cairo Egypt in January, World Championships in Berlin Germany in February and lastly the South African National champs in Pietermaritzburg in March. Only 200 odd days to go to the Olympics and I am in dire need of help to push through the last bit that will give me the best shot at a medal. Funding is the biggest concern and issue. Thus, I am asking is there anyone out there that is willing to help, whether it’s helping with as little as R50 or being able to sponsor a month of training or more it will be much appreciated! Your donations into my go fund me page would be much appreciated: DONATE My banking details for those that find that easier are: FNB Cheque account, Number: 62796065425, Branch code: 254905

As I wrap up the short version of my incredible year, I would like to acknowledge and appreciate every single person who has donated to my dream, whether it is money, accommodation, coaching, lending me a car, helping with a coke, letting me use your pump, riding with me, giving me tyres when I needed them, and I could go on and on but the acts of kindness I have experienced is what keeps me going. It gives me hope and motivation to succeed, to follow through.

Thank you for your time, interest and support into my journey. All the best for 2020. – Jean Spies

Olympic cyclist jean spies


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