It is possible to visit the United States as an athlete. However, you should be aware that the visas that provide this option, the O-visa and the P-visa, come with a high bar to pass. Depending on your particular abilities and your situation, you should look at both the O and P visa. However, you should also consider the H-2B visa as an option depending on your requirements.
The O-visa is available for aliens of “extraordinary” ability in athletics. While there is no annual cap on the number of visas available in this category, the bar is high. The word “extraordinary” is specific USCIS language and is not merely an accidental phrasing. When they say extraordinary, they mean it!
The O-visa requires that an employer file an O petition. To do so, the employer must consult with a peer group, labor group or management organization and receive a written advisory from that group after taking into consideration the aliens skills and the nature of the work.
So, what is “extraordinary”? The law defines it as “only a person who is one of the small percentage who have risen to the very top of his or her field”. Generally, you need to demonstrate national or international acclaim for your achievements.
The procedure for obtaining a P-visa is largely the same as with the O visa, but the P category specifically exists to cover those that may not make it under the stringent “extraordinary” ability requirement. This will cover internationally recognized athletes and teams. In addition, individual coaches or athletes performing with teams that are part of an international league of 15 or more amateur sports teams.
If you do not feel you qualify under the O or P category, you should then look at the H-2B category as an alternative.