Given the overabundance of fund-raising pleas that appear on websites like Kickstarter.com, it takes a truly unique project to capture much attention. Recently, Canadian Donna Vakalis did exactly that, with a pitch that was almost impossible to refuse – "Help an Olympian buy a laser gun!" Her crowd-funding campaign became a bit of an Internet sensation last week, bringing in thousands of dollars in donations.
Vakalis will be a civil-engineering PhD student at the University of Toronto in the fall. But at the moment, she's focused on representing Canada in the modern pentathlon at the London Games early next month.
While Vakalis is spending most of her waking hours training for the five sports that comprise the event – swimming, fencing, horseback riding, running and shooting – she is also raising money online.
"My event is pretty unique," Vakalis says. "You have to develop different kinds of technical skills and different kinds of athleticism for each sport," she notes, "and you also need to buy completely different sets of equipment."
Vakalis estimates that the modern pentathlon requires at least $5,000 in equipment purchases, between Kevlar vests for fencing, and new targets for shooting. Add onto that minor repairs, training facility fees, and trips to Olympic qualifying events in China and South America, and it becomes pricey. The gun, which fires laser beams at a special target, is an important part of the event's final leg, the run-and-shoot, and is being used for the first time at these Games. (It replaces the air pistol.)
"It's been my most expensive year, and also the year when I needed to take the most time off work," says Vakalis, whose usual gig is at an architectural firm. "I've needed to make up the difference somehow."
She began fund-raising through her own website in January, and had a breakthrough last week, when the popular comedy podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! – of which Vakalis is an avid listener – helped launch the campaign to buy her a new gun on crowd-funding website Indiegogo.com. Their listeners came through, reaching their donation target of $2,900 in one day, and giving over $4,600 (U.S.) at press time.
While the idea of that much money for a gun may seem like a luxury, it's a priority for Vakalis – at the Pan Am Games in 2011, her weapon malfunctioned moments before the competition. She fixed it using a soldering iron, but she would still like the peace of mind of having a backup.
"All of our athletes have to raise money. It's our biggest challenge," says Angela Ives, the president of Pentathlon Canada. While Vakalis and fellow Olympian Melanie McCann have received some funding from the Canadian Olympic Committee and Sport Canada this year, Ives says that pentathletes who don't qualify for the Games usually aren't so lucky, in part because Canada does not have a long history of success with the sport.
(Sport Canada responded to a request for comment by noting that Pentathlon Canada had not applied for funding eligibility with it since 2005. According to Ives, her organization decided not to apply in recent years because it was pessimistic about its chances of approval after previous rejections, and did not have the staff to fill out the long application.)
While Vakalis's approach to fund-raising might seem unique, her predicament is not. Many Canadian athletes have to do some kind of fund-raising to go to the Olympics, and they need an infrastructure of people to support them in other ways. For Vakalis, that includes volunteer coaches, and friends who have given her a home, rent-free, for the past few months.
"We didn't have much money to give her, but we could give her this place to stay," says Tara Norton, who, with her husband Bruce, invited the aspirant Olympian to live in their house earlier this year. "We're really proud of what she's doing. It's also great because we get to shoot her [laser] guns. She says that I'm a natural."