Couple takes sponsorship hit

ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:23 AM ET

Hello, baby Anika, and so long, Nike.

It's been quite a year for Olympians Jessica Zelinka, a heptathlete, and water polo player Nathaniel Miller.

The birth of their baby and the loss of a sponsor have the couple facing physical and financial challenges -- along with the usual adjustments to new parenthood -- as they work and train toward the 2012 London Olympics.

"Nike has not renewed their contract with me, that's a kick in the butt," said Zelinka, 28, who had enjoyed their support since she was a junior 10 years ago.

"It was bonus-based and I was hoping to make it a base. But you know, my agent is like, you just have to perform and then we'll talk to them."

The heptathlon includes seven events: The 100-metre hurdles, shot put, high jump, long jump, javelin throw and 200-metre and 800-metre runs.

Zelinka placed an amazing fifth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

She returned to international competition this year on daughter Anika's first birthday, May 29, and placed 12th at the 36th annual Hypo Meeting in Goetzis, Austria. What was strange, she said, was lacking a clothing sponsor -- so Zelinka competed wearing plain black workout gear.

While Zelinka's journey may be unique in her circuit -- she knows of no other elite heptathlete who is also a mom -- it seems that her husband and new dad Miller, 30, has faced even more upheaval over the past year with his water polo career now in the balance.

"For me, it's been really difficult," Miller said candidly. "It wasn't just looking back and learning the father role and what not, but you can't really support your family on carding [athlete funding of $1,500 per month]."

The captain of the 2008 Olympic water polo team and an 11-year veteran of the squad, Miller helped Canada qualify for its first Olympics in the sport since 1984. The team placed 11th in Beijing. But after giving up a pro career in Spain to move to Calgary for family stability and optimal training for Zelinka, and now holding down two jobs, he has taken a hiatus from the national team.

"We train from 7 to 10 in the morning and then in the evenings from 8 to 10 or 8 to 11 and it just makes your days incredibly long, especially when you're at work most of the day or taking care of the kid in between," said Miller, who works in the RBC Olympians program and as technical director for the Alberta water polo association. "I didn't have the time to get the kind of rest and recovery I needed. My body was breaking down and the stress and strain was too much."

Coach Dragan Jovanovich runs a rigid, demanding program that has produced results, but is also "leaking athletes like no other," said Miller, who had proposed a reduced training schedule.

"I'm sad and disappointed, especially if this is really the end of my national team career, but I don't feel any animosity toward the coach," Miller said. "He was straight with me from Day 1."

Zelinka, on the other hand, as an individual athlete, is more able to tailor her training to her personal life with the support of coach Les Gramantik. During her year off, she kept her Sport Canada carding of $1,500 per month as well as sponsorship from CE Franklin, a supplier of products and services to the energy industry. She's not yet back to elite level, but feels positive about her situation.

"My strength isn't there so much in the weight room, because I'm still not really as strong as I was through my core," she said. "But it's OK. I realize that you have to work to get things back."

ALISON_KORN@HOTMAIL.COM


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