Home Depot Ends Program For Olympians

Bree Schaaf of Bremerton, Wash., won the women's title Sunday at the U.S. National Bobsled Championships. She found out Wednesday she would lose her Home Depot sponsorship. The company, which gives Olympic athletes part-time jobs and full-time pay, cited the tough economic climate for ending the program. Schaaf talks about what happened.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. It's been quite a week for bobsledder Bree Schaaf. On Sunday, she won the woman's title at the U.S. National Bobsled Championships, putting her in contention for a spot on the 2010 Winter Olympic team. But on Wednesday, she found out she would lose her sponsorship. Home Depot has sponsored hundreds of Olympic athletes over the years, paying them full-time wages and benefits for part-time work. And it's announced it is ending its sponsorship program because of the poor economy. Bree Schaaf joins us from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York, and Ms. Schaaf, first congratulations on your championship, and sorry to hear about the more recent news.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BREE SCHAAF (Bobsledder, U.S. National Bobsled Championship): Yeah, thank you. It's kind of like getting socked in the gut with a trophy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: With a trophy. Well, how did you find out about Home Depot's stopping its sponsorships?

Ms. SCHAAF: You know, we've been curious for awhile, because they had stopped hiring athletes, and we knew that the sponsorship was up for renewal after Beijing, but hadn't really heard anything since. You know, they said, no, everything is going great; keep working. So, a bunch of us here at the Olympic Training Center, we had gotten - we received an email that said, congratulations, you fulfilled your requirements for the 2008 OJOP program - as it's called, the Olympic Job Opportunities Program - and it said, please join tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. for a conference call.

BLOCK: And that's never a good sign.

Ms. SCHAAF: No. I mean, all of us were thinking, ah - so, we, you know, we spent so much time analyzing that email, thinking, wow, it sounds good, looks like, you know, they're being really positive. There's an exclamation point here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Don't be fooled.

Ms. SCHAAF: Yeah, exactly. And so, then we all signed onto the conference call, where they told us, well, hey, congratulations, you guys have filled your requirements. We have sober news: Home Depot has chosen not to continue sponsorship.

BLOCK: And what went through your mind when you heard that?

Ms. SCHAAF: Ugh. It was a low blow. It's a really tough timing with the Olympics just around the corner, because now is when things get kicked into high gear. It's very rough timing.

BLOCK: Well, the sponsorship for you has meant, what? A half-time job at Home Depot, right? What were you doing?

Ms. SCHAAF: Yeah, it was part-time work with full-time pay, and the biggest part was the flexible hours - that's what huge for athletes - and I got hired on in the flooring department as a flooring specialist. You know, it's just an absolutely fantastic program for us, because we're training so much and, you know, doing - in the offseason, working out two or three times a day, you know, makes it tough to work a nine-to-five job when, you know, you'd only get a half-hour lunch break.

BLOCK: Are there other corporate likely sponsors, you know, just begging, wanting the opportunity to sponsor a bobsled team, do you think?

Ms. SCHAAF: You know, we're looking into it, but on a positive note, we're lucky enough that the U.S. Olympic Committee is actually going to help us out for a little while up until the games.

BLOCK: Well, is that going to be enough to get you through?

Ms. SCHAAF: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHAAF: It's definitely not, and I actually was just working on my sponsorship packet before we got on the phone here. It's definitely going to take some luck and some help in order to succeed next year.

BLOCK: You mentioned you were doing a sponsorship packet.

Ms. SCHAAF: Yeah, just trying to put together a bio and summary here, trying to see if anyone might be interested...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHAAF: In having logos, you know, on a bobsled, on a suit.

BLOCK: There is some vacant space on your bobsled and on your uniform right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHAAF: Yes, there are some vacancies. There is a fresh your-logo-here spot on my Home Depot jacket.

BLOCK: How are you feeling about the 2010 games?

Ms. SCHAAF: I feel great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHAAF: You know, I am still just as excited and plan, you know, plan on attending and plan on being successful. It's just another kind of challenge along the path to the games.

BLOCK: Well, Bree Schaaf, best of luck to you. Thanks for talking with us.

Ms. SCHAAF: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's bobsledder Bree Schaaf, one of dozens of aspiring Olympic athletes who will lose the sponsorship of Home Depot. On Sunday, she won the women's title at the U.S. National Bobsled Championship in Lake Placid, New York.

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