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Home Depot aids Utah ski athlete

The Home Depot, the newest sponsor of the 2002 Winter Games, has put more than 100 Olympic hopefuls on the payroll in the past three years - including one in Utah.

"Home Depot has basically kept me in the sport, kept me from quitting," said Erik Lapin, a freestyle skier who hopes to compete in next year's Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.Lapin and other contenders for the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams joined officials from the home improvement company, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee Thursday to announce the sponsorship.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Home Depot is expected to contribute as much as $50 million in cash, goods and services to the joint marketing venture between the USOC and organizers of the 2002 Winter Games.

In exchange, Home Depot can advertise itself as a sponsor of not only the 2002 Games, but also every U.S. and Canadian Olympic team through the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

Lapin, 27 and a two-time World Cup qualifier, is competing for the first time for a spot on the U.S. team going to the next Winter Games. He also wants to compete in the 2002 Winter Games.

A native of California, Lapin moved to Park City four years ago to train at the Utah Winter Sports Park and earned a degree in political science and economics at the University of Utah.

After college, Lapin said he realized he couldn't expect his parents to continue to support his skiing. But he didn't think there was a way he could earn enough money and still take the time off he needed to train and compete - until he heard about the program at Home Depot.

Hired in April 1995, Lapin earns a full-time salary working as a cashier at the 21st South store an average of 20 hours a week over a year.

"The program is more than money. It's not just the financial support. It's the support the associates give you as well," he said, recalling being sidelined by an injury last season.

"I was pretty down," Lapin said. But the same co-workers who cheered him on at his competitions rallied around him. "The support I got from the employees here really kept me going and got me to go back to competing again."

Lapin should be joined soon by other athletes in the four area Home Depot stores, according to Tammy Adams, Salt Lake area district manager. "We're definitely looking for some more. It's a great program," Adams said.

Some 1,377 athletes have been hired through the USOC's Olympic Job Opportunity program, which was created in 1977 to give them a chance to begin a career while taking time off for training and competition.

Home Depot is currently the largest employer participating in the program, sending 38 athletes to the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. The company also hires athletes in its Canadian stores through a similar program in that country.