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Gold Medal Millionaires

For many past and present Olympic athletes, running a business can be just as challenging -- and rewarding -- as competing in the world's biggest sporting event.

For Jim Craig, starting his own company was a lot like taking the ice for what is now considered one of the biggest games in hockey history -- a long shot with a big reward.

As goalie for the "Miracle on Ice" hockey team, Craig helped the United States pull off an upset over the heavily favored Soviets at the 1980 Olympics -- a Cold War-era victory that was recounted in the 2004 movie Miracle. That 4-3 win propelled the U.S. team to a final gold medal-winning game against Finland.

Now the head of a Boston-based promotions and marketing firm he aptly named Gold Medal Strategies, Craig says he can appreciate the leap of faith it takes to become a successful entrepreneur. "It's a lot of hard work and sacrifice and commitment to the unknown when no one else believes," Craig says. And while it's been more than 20 years since he stood on that Olympic podium in Lake Placid, N.Y., the lessons he learned as a hockey player have never really left him.

After retiring from professional hockey in 1984, Craig went on to guide corporate teams as a sales consultant for hundreds of large organizations. But even as he excelled professionally, Craig knew from his hockey days that he should never take success for granted. "The greatest thing about athletics is there is always a winner and there is always a loser," Craig said. "And that means you can never really get comfortable."

Always looking for a challenge, Craig decided to venture out on his own in 2007 and started Gold Medal Strategies. Craig, who finds that he draws on the lessons of both his corporate and athletic training when seeking direction, oversees a speaker's bureau that places people for motivational talks, and a marketing division that organizes signings at corporate events, meet and greets, and promotional giveaways. The firm also represents Craig as he travels internationally for his own motivational speaking appearances.

Like Craig, many former and current Olympic athletes have found success as entrepreneurs. And with the focus and drive it takes to be an Olympic-level athlete, it's no surprise that so many make the transition from the playing field to the corner office.

Many clients of The Zimmerman Agency, one of the largest public relations firms in Tallahassee, Fla., may not know the company's CEO got her start as an Olympic gymnast, but Carrie Englert Zimmerman approaches her role with the same energy that she put into her Olympic training. In fact, the rigors of entrepreneurship proved to be relatively easy for Englert Zimmerman, having spent eight to 10 hours in the gym every day starting at the age of 15.

At the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal, Englert Zimmerman did not medal, but she became the first American woman to score a perfect 10 on the floor routine. Later that year, she also became the first to hold a double national title in the floor and balance beam. "No matter how far it gets away from the Olympics, that competitive spirit never really goes away and becomes part of how you live your life," says Englert Zimmerman, who founded The Zimmerman Agency with her husband in 1987. Today, the agency boasts 150 employees and $175 million in revenue. Big-name clients include Aflac, Citi Business, and ClubMed.

Englert Zimmerman's story is unique from other Olympians-turned-entrepreneurs in that there is a very clear separation between her athletic career and the kind of entrepreneurial path she pursued. But for most Olympic athletes who embark on a second career, transitioning from a lifestyle of constant training is a challenge, and many ultimately start their own business as a way to stay connected to their sport.

That was certainly the case for Steve McCain and Jay Thornton, former U.S. gymnasts and co-founders of e-commerce site American Gymnast. While training together at the Olympic center in Houston in the early 1990s, McCain and Thornton were always throwing around ideas for a business. American Gymnast originally started as a subscription-based newsletter in which the two wrote about their experiences as elite athletes, and later during the dot-com boom, McCain and Thornton developed an e-commerce site to sell gymnastics equipment.

"The idea was to deliver something straight from the heart of the gymnast," Thornton says. He says that they were able to build a loyal customer base because of their background and knowledge as gymnasts. The business really took off in 2000, after Thornton retired from the sport and was able to devote himself to the company full-time. McCain continued training and made the Olympic team in 2000, which Thornton says helped boost sales. Within a few years of launching American Gymnast, they were doing more than $1 million a year in revenue.

Despite its growth, American Gymnast has remained a relatively small company, with the two founders continuing to wear multiple hats. Running a business has required them both to step outside of their comfort zone, which is something they became familiar with as athletes. "In gymnastics, there's no such thing as the comfort zone," McCain says. "As soon as you let yourself get comfortable, that means that you're not pushing yourself. In business, you've got to keep your foot on the gas, because if you don't, someone else is going to catch you."

These days, the current generation of Olympic athletes is proving itself to be a very entrepreneurial bunch. Many are no longer waiting to retire before trying their hand at business. Michelle Roark, the current national champion in freestyle moguls skiing -- who started her own perfume business, Phi-nomenal, after competing in the 2006 Olympics -- says that her signature scents have been a vehicle to her success on the slopes.

A few of Roark's teammates have joined her in pursuing their own entrepreneurial paths. Fellow freestyle mogul skier Shannon Bahrke has started Silver Bean Coffee, a coffee roasting business named for her 2002 silver medal, and Ted Ligety, the 2006 gold medalist for the men's alpine combined event, started designing his own goggles shortly after the Olympics as a way to express his individuality in the sport.

For Roark, the idea for Phi-nomenal came to her after a sports psychologist suggested she visualize her success with all of her senses. Discouraged that she could not pinpoint the "smell" of success, Roark used her background in chemical engineering to create her own blend of essential oils that were chosen to evoke confidence, energy, and focus as she prepared for competition. When Roark wore her scent as she headed down the moguls course at her first Olympic games in 2006, she knew that she needed to pursue the hobby as a business. Today, the Phi-nomenal line has six all-natural perfumes -- mixed entirely by Roark -- that sell online and at a boutique in Roark's hometown of Denver.

Roark, who will start training again soon for the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, admits that her biggest challenge is balancing her commitment to the sport with her commitment to Phi-nomenal. But she says the difficulty level of her sport helps her keep things in perspective when she is off the course. "When you're getting started in business, there's a learning process and there's going to be bumps in the road," she says. "But it's nothing compared to the bumps I negotiate on the world cup circuit! Any Phi-nomenal executive duties are a breeze after that."

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