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Canadian athletes look to crowdfunding to pay for their Olympic dream

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Some Canadian athletes are funding the pursuit of their Olympic dreams by giving away mementos, experiences and their own time in exchange for money.

Signed race bibs and equipment, snowboard and diving lessons, personal phone calls, hand-knitted tuques, face-to-face meetings and social media "shoutouts" are on offer.

The scope of the givebacks and experiences reflects the size of the donation to the athlete.

The website Pursuit — designed and operated by a pair of former athletes — is the platform for this exchange.

The website blends elements of on-line shopping for unique items or experiences. Each athlete's story is told in video and print.

They state their financial goal and why they need the money. Each athlete's financial campaign has a 60-day limit.

Olympic biathlete Megan Imrie of Falcon Lake, Man., was well on her way to her goal of $10,000 with over a month to go.

The athletes on Pursuit offer items and access to their lives on a scale reflecting the size of the donation.

So for a $20 donation, Imrie will send e-mail postcards during training and competition next season.

A package of a personal telephone call, an autographed card and regular e-mail updates goes for $100.

For $1,000, Imrie will package a pair of signed skis, bindings and a race bib together for the donor.

Imrie's family operates Falcon Beach Ranch, so her big-ticket offering is a two-night stay at the resort for a $5,000 donation.

"People are holding onto the money more these days," Imrie says. "They want something back and it has to be creative.

"You can't just say 'this is my dream' please support it' and then that's the last they hear from you. The giveback part of it, to some people it doesn't matter, but to a lot it does. They can feel involved in my journey and feel they've got something for their money."

Julia Rivard, a kayaker who raced for Canada in the 2000 Olympics, and former gymnast Leah Skerry launched Pursuit last year.

"We were seeing the movement of crowdfunding really take hold," Rivard said from their office in Halifax.

"Even athletes who make it to the top often struggle to support their dreams. We felt we could successfully bridge that gap if we could implement crowdfunding for Canadian athletes."

When the two women were planning Pursuit, Skerry insisted on making givebacks from the athletes part of their campaigns.

"Most of these items are personal and that's the draw," Skerry said. "They're bragging-rights pieces, most of them.

"To say you have a World Cup bib from a downhill skier who is on the Olympic team, those are things you frame and put up on your wall."

Imrie has participated in unique fundraisers before. She and the rest of the biathlon team posed for a nude calendar in 2008.

Manitoba trappers donated fur pelts to sell for Imrie's journey to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

Imrie finished 30th in the 7.5-kilometre sprint and was a member of the relay team that finished 18th.

Snowboarders Alex Duckworth of Kingsburg, N.S., and Molly Milligan of Yellowknife, alpine skier Larisa Yurkiw of Owen Sound, Ont., diver Maxim Bouchard of St-Constant, Que., and triathlete Andrew Yorke of Hamilton, Ont., are some of the athletes whose Pursuit campaigns surpassed their financial goals.

Yurkiw was one of the first athletes to sign on with Pursuit last year. She shot past her goal of $20,000 by $2,000.

A tuque she knit herself combined with passes to ski resorts was one of her givebacks for a $250 donation.

"It's different than anything I've ever done before," Yurkiw says. "It broadened my network, but also made me much closer and connected the network that was already in place.

"It was a really emotional way to raise money actually and I felt supported in a unique way last season for sure."

Not all Pursuit campaigns are successful. Some have fallen far short of their goal.

Rivard and Skerry discovered sports teams aren't as successful as individual athletes or teams of two.

The co-founders emphasize the athletes must follow up and follow through with their donors for their campaigns to be successful.

"It's one of those things, you have to put the work in to," Yurkiw said. "I had to actually go buy wool and crochet tuques when somebody would donate the amount of money.

"I had to be creative about the ways I would allow a donor to be connected to me during a season."

Added Imrie: "It feels like I have homework to do every time I walk in the door, just trying to keep track of everyone and keeping track of the givebacks. You can't ask for free money and expect to give nothing back, right?

"It's an investment on my part, but I believe it's so worth it in the end."

When piggybacked with social media, Pursuit extends the fundraising reach of the athletes.

When British diving star Tom Daley tweeted a link to Bouchard's Pursuit page, Bouchard quickly reached his goal of $12,000.

Imrie says she recently received a donation from someone in Slovakia.

"What blew me away was how social media works," Imrie said. "As soon as you get this out onto Facebook and Twitter and getting people talking about it, it's incredible how far-reaching that is."

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