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Long-track speedskater Marsha Hudey trains at the Olympic Oval in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. The 26-year-old Olympian from White City, Sask., will occasionally skip buying the supplements that help her recover between training sessions because they're expensive.Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

When speedskater Marsha Hudey couldn't afford to pay for her cellphone, she shut it off until she could.

The 26-year-old Olympian from White City, Sask., will occasionally skip buying the supplements that help her recover between training sessions because they're expensive.

Hudey trains with the national team at the Olympic Oval in Calgary, living with her brother and paying $575 in rent and $400 for utilities and food. Her mother owns her car and pays the insurance.

In her short off-season, Hudey heads home to Saskatchewan to make as much money as she can as a physiotherapy assistant.

Hudey's primary source of income to pay for food, rent and gas is the $1,500 a month — $18,000 per year — she receives in "carding" money from the federal government's Athlete Assistance Program.

While millions have been invested coaching, training camps, competition, medical services and sport science and technology over the last decade, the carding money that athletes get to put food on the table and keep the lights on has not increased since 2004.

Athletes say it's time for a raise.

"I basically live off my card month to month," Hudey said in a recent interview. "My parents have basically funded me."

Adam van Koeverden, a four-time Olympic medallist in kayaking, has his shoulder to the wheel to increase carding payments for his fellow athletes.

The vice-chair of the Canadian Olympic Committee's athletes commission said he's spoken directly with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the need for carding to catch up with the rise in inflation over the last 13 years.

A 26 per cent increase wouldn't be a raise but a bridging of the gap between the current cost of living and what athletes can afford, said van Koeverden.

"Right now it's $1,500. I think it should be $2,000," van Koeverden said. "I think it should be adjusted for inflation every year so it should grow by about one and a half per cent every year."

Also hanging over Hudey's head like a dark cloud is the $40,000 student loan she can defer payment on while she's on the national team.

The 2014 Olympian, who is currently ranked fourth in the world in the 500 metres, says the pressure to get out in "the real world" and make money can cut short an athlete's career.

"I have a huge student loan debt," Hudey said. "I'm not even putting anything away to save to pay this off. It's something that hangs over top of you all the time."

Her AAP carding qualifies Hudey for a $6,000 grant from the Saskatchewan government. But boots and blades, which cost $2,000, entry fees for races and the $1,200 annual team fee Hudey pays to Speed Skating Canada take big bites out of her budget.

Hudey says she's approached businesses for sponsorship and has been turned away.

The good news for Hudey is that an increase in carding money could come as soon as this year's federal budget.

Among the recommendations adopted in December by the Commons finance committee was "that the Government of Canada increase funding for the Athlete Assistance Program in order to reflect the increasing costs of living. In doing so, the number of athletes funded through the program should not be reduced."

About 2,000 athletes who compete in Olympic and Paralympic sport, and who rank in the top 16 in the world or who are deemed to have the potential to get there, receive carding money.

A senior card is worth $1,500. A first-year senior card or development card is $900 per month.

Hudey's teammate Tyson Langelaar is in high school and lives at home with his parents in Winnipeg.

Langelaar's development card of $900 per month "is plenty" right now, he said. But the 17-year-old knows the financial rubber will hit the road when it comes time to move to Calgary and train at the oval.

With his $900 a month, a $10,000 grant from the Quebec government and an annual cheque from his dad, speedskater Alexandre St-Jean of Quebec City says he's breaking even in his first season on a senior card.

"Lots of us can only be athletes because our parents can help us," the 23-year-old dentistry student said. "If we don't get adjusted with inflation, it's just like our salary was going down. Any job is usually adjusted with inflation. In the past 11 years, our salary went down."

In an Ekos survey submitted to Sport Canada in 2015, one in five athletes said they were in debt pursuing their athletic career, mostly in the form of credit card charges and loans from family.

The average debt was almost $8,000. The data was taken from an online survey of 967 carded athletes.

In Canada, an Olympic gold medallist or world champion gets the same amount per month as an athlete ranked 13th in the world.

New Zealand takes a somewhat different approach with their carded athletes that number less than 500. An athlete in an individual sport who wins a world championship or Olympic gold medal can apply for a $60,000 performance enhancement grant that year. An athlete who finishes ninth to 12th can apply for a $30,000 grant.

Van Koeverden doesn't take issue with Canada's egalitarian approach.

Just a few hundred dollars more per month could make the difference between an athlete with medal potential staying in sport and quitting, he said.

"For every Olympic medallist we have, there are 10 or 20 athletes training hard because they want to win an Olympic medal," he said. "And the sponsorships aren't there for those athletes."

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