In a standard-issue orange apron, Debbie McCormick works the paint department at The Home Depot in Madison, Wis. She roams the concrete-floor aisles, armed with what has become an emotionally loaded question: Can I help you?
The contractor tells Debbie he needs some primer, but not a lot because jobs are scarce. He doesn't know how he's going to make it. The homeowner lets Debbie know she needs a neutral paint to get her house ready for sale in this down market. The bank is closing in. The office manager asks Debbie for the right caulk to cover nail holes after a laid-off employee packed up the pictures that had been hanging on the walls. The office feels lonely with so many people leaving.
"You think you have it tough and you start hearing these stories," says McCormick. "People come in and talk about what they need but also why they need it. People are close to tears. I think customers just really need someone to listen."
There must be a requisite rescue gene in Olympians. McCormick is a curler—yes, an athlete who directs a stone with a broom down an ice sheet, as if shooing a cat off a porch—and she's also a Home Depot expert on oil, latex and inspirational colors. She knows the healing powers of gold, silver and bronze, having qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Games, her third Olympics, as the skip (captain) of the U.S. team. "If we do well," says the 35-year-old McCormick, "maybe it'll give people a little break from what they're going through."
What about a respite for McCormick and other blue-collar Olympians? They are not recession-proof either. As a rule, aspiring medal winners are practiced at sacrifice, a quality highlighted in the sepia-toned features NBC rolls out every two years, but the economy has added yet another layer of footage. The Home Depot has been up to its hex bolts in trouble. At the end of 2008, McCormick was one of 85 American athletes who participated in the company's generous job program for Olympians, which paid them for 40 hours of work for every 20 on the clock, allowing them the flexibility to train and travel. In January, after The Home Depot posted a 31% drop in third-quarter earnings for 2008, the corporation announced it would shutter the 16-year-old program on March 2.
McCormick, with eight years of experience at The Home Depot, became one of only a dozen U.S. athletes to remain at a store as a regular part-time employee. "I can't be mad at Home Depot," said bobsledder Brock Kreitzburg, 33, when notified about the cuts. "If not for that job, I wouldn't have made the 2006 Games."
Speedskater Jessica Smith left The Home Depot grateful but facing a new asceticism. Without the flextime, she couldn't squeeze a work schedule into her eight-hour training days. "Every day it's a struggle," she says, "but this is the sacrifice we choose."
The 25-year-old Smith doesn't bother her parents with tales of penny-pinching. She trains in Salt Lake City while her family lives just outside Detroit, ground zero for the collapsing auto industry, where unemployment is around 23%. The ripples from the Big Three have reached her father, who delivers auto parts for car companies. "If it came down to it, my family would pitch in," says Smith, "but I don't want to put any burden on them."
So Smith is like a lot of Olympians trying to get by on the three R's: roommates, ride sharing and ramen noodles. "The world may see the skinniest Olympics ever," jokes Noelle Pikus-Pace of the skeleton team. "We're down to rice cakes." (Make that four R's.)
Two years ago Pikus-Pace was flush with a bounty of speaking engagements, those handy $2,000 to $5,000 gigs that help pay for equipment, like a $10,000 sled. (The U.S. Olympic Committee provides training stipends and health insurance but no living wages.) Counting lost sponsorships and speaking fees, Pikus-Pace estimates she is making $30,000 a year less than she was in 2007—or half her income. Necessity can be a creative juice, though. Pikus-Pace was granted a business license last month to start snowfirehats.com. She makes and sells funky headwear for ski slope junkies. Think of the 2010 Winter Games as a do-it-yourself Olympics.