Feb. 25, 2012, 11:11 a.m. (ET)
Erin Cafaro

The U.S. National Women’s Rowing Team has long been one of the best in the world.

Take, for example, the women’s eight, which won the Olympic gold medal in 2008 and its sixth consecutive World Rowing Championships gold in 2011.

Yet when it comes to financing a trip to London for the 2012 Olympic Games, the rowers have found they can always use some extra cash. So, in late 2011, the team turned to a do-it-yourself calendar sale to help.

“It was total grass roots,” said veteran rower Erin Cafaro, 28, who helped the women’s eight boat bring home the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in the 2000-meter race in 2008. “One time we were at a Whole Foods at a big, long table signing calendars.”

Such is life for many Olympic athletes.

The calendar, titled “Power and Grace,” featured artistic photos of the national team members and brought in $2,000 for each team member, said Cafaro, who was featured as Miss March.

That number is “huge,” she added, as the strenuous, year-round training obligations prevent most national team members from holding down full-time jobs.

All proceeds from the calendar went directly to the athletes to help them pay for food, lodging and other daily needs as they put a full-time focus on preparing for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

“(Training) is an ongoing process from the day the Olympics end,” said Matt Imes, U.S. Rowing’s High Performance Director.

Along with fundraising and donations, the athletes rely on performance-based stipends from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which can range from $200 to $1,000 a month, Imes said.

Money isn’t necessarily flush for the more successful rowers, either. According to Imes, some of the rowers with gold medals and several years of experience might earn $25,000 a year from USOC allocations and other funds and donations. Many athletes rely on families, friends or loans for financial support as they chase their Olympic dreams, said Cafaro, who sent a mass email to friends and family in December encouraging them to “Be a part of the London 2012 Olympics!” by buying the calendar.

“Some of them, somehow, some way, they’re making it,” Imes said. “They love what they do, and they love being competitive. It shows the type of moral fiber they have to do that.”

Food is one of the major costs for athletes who have to pack in the calories — sometimes up to 6,000 a day — to keep up with their full-time training schedules on the water and in the gym.

Typically, US Rowing raises $1.5 million each year for equipment, training and athlete expenses, Imes said. Most of the funds come from the National Rowing Foundation, with the rest from individual donors, fundraising events, grants or small corporate sponsorships. The USOC then allots a certain amount to the teams, which are divided among rowers on a performance-based level, Imes said.

Other countries receive more money for their niche sports because they are government funded, but the U.S. rowing teams don’t have that luxury.

Because the stipends can be so low, many of Cafaro’s teammates try to find extra work wherever they can. Cafaro tried to hold a job as a part-time trainer last year while also going back to school, but the extra commitments with the continued full-time training proved to be too much.

She suffered from stress fractures and had to sit out this year’s world championships. Missing the world championships resulted in earning less training funding.

She’s not complaining, though.

“You can be poor on money but rich on life,” she said. “I feel very fulfilled everyday; otherwise, I wouldn’t come to practice every day. It makes me feel good to come to practice every day and compete for my country.”