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Gimelstob’s Marathon Wager Helps Organizers Raise $26.2 Million

Justin Gimelstob
Justin Gimelstob hits a forehand during the 2007 U.S. Open. Photographer: Al Bello/Getty Images

Justin Gimelstob spent much of a 12-year pro tennis career pushing his body diving for shots, and viewed it as just another challenge when friend and 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick bet $10,000 for charity that he couldn’t finish the New York City Marathon.

To win, the 33-year-old Gimelstob must complete tomorrow’s race, which winds 26.2 miles from Staten Island to Central Park, in 4 hours, 45 minutes or less. The loser pays $10,000 to the victor’s charity -- the Justin Gimelstob Children’s Fund for pediatric cancer or the Andy Roddick Foundation for at-risk youth.

That donation will be just a portion of the amount Gimelstob plans to contribute to what the race-organizing New York Road Runners say is the most philanthropic annual sports event in the U.S., producing $26.2 million. Through sponsorships and fundraising, Gimelstob’s eight-person team will try to gather an additional $20,000-$30,000 for his foundation and the organizer’s youth programs.

“At the time I did not think the bet would take on this type of magnitude,” Gimelstob said in a telephone interview. “It has provided us with a nice opportunity to joke around, but at the end of the day it’s out raising money for good causes.”

Gimelstob, now a television tennis analyst, was inspired to run following the sudden death last year of Jeff Wernick, a close friend and avid runner. When Roddick heard that Gimelstob wanted to run the marathon in Wernick’s honor, he immediately expressed doubt. At an ATP World Tour event in Cincinnati in August, Gimelstob and Roddick set the parameters, including the 4:45 limit.


Before he took the bet, Gimelstob said, he never had run more than three miles at once.

Gimelstob must average 10 minutes, 52 seconds a mile. A 4:45 total would have placed him ahead of about 30,000 finishers in last year’s 43,000-runner race, and more than 2 1/2 hours behind the winning time of 2:09:15 posted by American Meb Keflezighi.

“Andy wanted to make sure that cramping, my back going out or any injury would result in a loss,” Gimelstob said. “It was a smart move, because I would have crawled on my hands and knees to win this bet.”

Roddick, the ATP’s ninth-ranked player, declined to comment on the bet through spokeswoman Erica Quandt.

Keflezighi is defending his title tomorrow against a field that includes Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, the world-record holder at 2:03:59. Top women entered include Ethiopians Derartu Tulu, the defending champion, and Teyba Erkesso, who won the Boston Marathon in April.

Injury List

Gimelstob reached a high ranking of No. 63 in 1999 and retired in 2007 after a career plagued by back and foot injuries. The Morristown, New Jersey, native, who won two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles with Venus Williams in 1998, has received 29 cortisone injections for his degenerative back disease and has a steel plate in his left foot. Gimelstob said his father offered him $20,000 not to run, citing concern for his son’s health.

“That wasn’t hard to turn down because for me it was never as much about the money as it was about the pride and the fundraising aspect,” Gimelstob said.

Charity entries for the marathon are required to raise a minimum of $2,500 for race-affiliated philanthropy, NYRR spokesman Richard Finn said. Gimelstob’s team, which includes two-time Grand Slam doubles winner Jonathan Stark, is planning to raise much more.

“It is impossible to know the exact number until after the race because so much is tied into pledges and finishing times,” Gimelstob said. “I would estimate that we will come in between $20,000 and $30,000 for marathon charities and my own.”

Sponsor Contribution

Gimelstob’s personal sponsors Nike Inc, closely held Zico Coconut Water and the St. Giles Hotel in Manhattan have contributed as well. Zico is donating $1 to Gimelstob’s charity for every Facebook fan he attracts before the race. The St. Giles will host a post-race fundraising party.

There is more athlete philanthropy now than ever, said Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project in Washington. He said Gimelstob’s effort is especially effective because it fills a void.

“Justin is raising money that might not otherwise be raised, and that’s when you know you are making a difference,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.

Amani Toomer, the New York Giants’ career leader in receiving yards and touchdowns, is also running for charity. Toomer, 33, is starting last and watchmaker Timex Group BV will donate $1 to the NYRR youth programs for each runner he passes.

‘Helping Others’

“Every athlete should be giving to charity,” Toomer, who is aiming to raise $20,000, said in a telephone interview. “The celebrity doesn’t really mean anything unless you are helping others.”

The New York City Marathon’s charity program began in 2006, with 14 groups raising $11.2 million. This year, 7,400 runners for 190 charities are expected to raise $1 million a mile, producing a total above any other sports event in America, according to NYRR President Mary Wittenberg. Johnson said it would be the most from a single-day event.

“It’s great for us to have celebrities running because it raises the awareness of the race and the charities,” Wittenberg said in a telephone interview. “In Justin and Andy’s case, what the bet has done is make a lot of people think, ‘We should have a bet on our race and do it for charity too.’”

Gimelstob said he spent this week recovering from a five-day bout of the flu. Though he has $10,000 personally at stake, Gimelstob is more concerned about the other $30,000 he wants to raise, as well as honoring Wernick and his competitive pride.

“This whole process has garnered so much positive energy and attention,” Gimelstob said. “Now it’s time to put my feet where my mouth is.”

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