Olympic dream can be costly for athletes
Chasing his Olympic dream for almost a decade, snowboarder Jonathan Cheever has spent considerable time “turning wrenches.” That is not slang for some race move in his chosen sport of snowboardcross. It is how the Saugus-raised Cheever supports his athletic career. When not traveling around Europe and competing in his big-thrill, big-spill sport where four snowboarders simultaneously speed down mountains, Cheever, 28, works as a licensed plumber.
After Cheever told his parents he wanted to seriously pursue snowboarding, they suggested he “have a trade to fall back on.” Jonathan followed his father, Mark, into the plumbing and heating business.
“Asking people to fund my dream is a little too humbling for me,” said Cheever, who is an unofficial alternate for the 2014 Sochi Olympic team and plans to be in Europe during the Games and ready to compete if a teammate gets injured. “If my results are great, chances are I’m getting prize money and I’m not turning wrenches as often. If I’m injured or not riding as well as I should be, then I’m looking for work, whether in Park City, [Utah] or back in Boston.”
While Cheever’s second job is unusual among Olympic-caliber athletes, the financial strain created by high-level training and international travel is not. Of the 230 United States athletes selected for the Sochi Olympics, most struggle with the cost of pursuing Olympic glory.
Every elite winter athlete’s financial situation is different. Training expenses, competition-related travel costs, and equipment prices vary, as does funding from national sports organizations and appeal to sponsors. Competitors in less marquee sports — aerials, bobsled, curling, cross-country skiing, luge, moguls, Nordic combined, skeleton, ski jumping — rarely garner much attention outside the Winter Games and generally face more financial challenges than their snowboarding, Alpine skiing, figure skating, and hockey US teammates.
But all Winter Olympic hopefuls face the same competitive Catch-22 when it comes to financial support. Elite athletes need to demonstrate they deserve funds. Typically, that means performing well at major competitions and showing the kind of potential that could put them on the Olympic podium one day. To perform well, however, it takes the kind of consistent practice, equipment, facilities, and coaching that come at a high price. It is tough to reach the top levels of any sport when money concerns limit training time and competitive opportunities.
“The need depends on the athlete,” said snowboarder Ross Powers, who won gold in the men’s halfpipe at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and founded the Level Field Fund to fill the funding gaps elite athletes face. “Some really need money for the training. Some people just need to get to the events. We mostly put money toward getting athletes to competitions where they can really get the result they need to get on a national team or get a sponsor or get more support.”
Big-name, big-money winter sports figures such as skier Lindsey Vonn and snowboarder Shaun White remain glaring exceptions. The same goes for the headline-making Jamaican bobsled team that recently raised $130,000 in three days via social media with most donations coming from the US.
Between endorsement deals and career prize money, two-time Olympic gold medalist White reportedly has an estimated net worth of $20 million. By comparison, defending women’s moguls gold medalist Hannah Kearney said she lives “as frugally as possible” in Norwich, Vt., spending five months each year living at the US Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., because she receives free room and board there, and relies on sponsors to help defray the $50,000 it costs annually to compete.
At all costs
With winter sports, the financial challenges are often greater since there are only so many places athletes can find moguls courses or ski jumps, or drop into halfpipes or slide down bobsled tracks. When asked where most of their money goes, whether team or sponsor funds or personal funds, Winter Olympians did not hesitate to answer “travel.” Before American mountains open, the top US Alpine skiers and snowboarders often chase winter around the globe, spending summers in New Zealand and early fall in Chile.
Bobsled driver Jazmine Fenlator ventured to an indoor ice facility in Calgary, Alberta, last summer, practicing there before it was cold enough to open the bobsled track in Lake Placid.
“Going into the Olympic year, I told myself, ‘I’m making every sacrifice,’ ” said Fenlator, who has worked odd jobs from creperie manager to dog walker to support her athletic ambitions and received financial aid from her community and sponsor Liberty Mutual Insurance. “I’m putting all my eggs in one basket and I’m going for broke. At the end of the day, if I’m in debt for it, then I am. But the glory of the journey is worth it for me. I have the rest of my life to work at a desk and do what I need to do to pay that debt off. I only have this limited time now to push myself to the max.”
And, as the case may be, push her savings to the max and beyond.
Fenlator, 28, called bobsled “one of the most expensive Olympic sports next to equestrian.” She estimates it personally costs her $80,000 a year to compete. While USA Bobsled provides athletes with a two-man sled worth around $150,000, Fenlator said she is responsible for everything from buying health insurance to bobsled spikes ($300 per pair) to sled runners ($5,000 to $12,000 per set), with different runners used like tires for different ice conditions.
In Calgary, ice time cost $250 per hour, which Fenlator split with other drivers and a brakeman. She slept on one friend’s couch and borrowed a car from another when she could. For the first week of her stay, a friend bought groceries and Fenlator cooked in exchange. Still, the whole trip cost around $5,000. She also funded six weeks in Phoenix to train with her strength and conditioning coach, who spends the offseason there. As the Olympics approached, she was training in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and faced with some tough choices.
“Do I really need to do laundry this week and pay for it with 76 Swiss francs [$84] or do I need a brand new pair of bobsled spikes?” asked Fenlator. “I’m going to go with the bobsled spikes and I’ll wash my clothes in the tub. Maybe I’ll do my laundry in the tub for the rest of the season.”
Fenlator and her bobsled teammates are not the only ones who face tough decisions about how to allocate limited funds.
Given how athlete funding operates in the US, securing financial support from national sports governing bodies and companies is oftentimes competitive. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is a nonprofit organization that raises money to help American athletes achieve “competitive excellence.” That money is distributed to each sport’s national governing body and athletes based largely on past accomplishments and prospects for future wins. Snowboarding receives more funding than biathlon because it brings home more medals.
Nonetheless, difficult decisions remain, with bets placed on potential for international success.
“Direct support is strategically allocated to give the greatest number of American athletes the opportunity to reach the podium,” USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in a statement to the Globe. “The more US athletes that earn medals, the more resources the USOC is able to generate.”
Sandusky also noted that the national governing bodies received nearly 10 percent more direct funding from 2009-12 ($146 million) when compared with the previous four-year period.
The USOC works with each sport’s national governing body to determine the best way to distribute funds. The USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, along with the other national governing bodies for different sports, must figure out how to best spend its budget. For bobsled, which has worked with revenues between $2 million and $2.5 million in past years, money might be spent on everything from technology to shipping equipment overseas to athletes, sometimes leaving competitors on lower-ranked sleds covering more of their expenses.
Often national governing bodies place their athletes in different competitive tiers and pay the higher tiers more money. Inevitably, it leaves a good number of athletes scrambling to cover costs. In sports that garner little attention, attract few big sponsors, and win comparatively few medals, such as Nordic combined, which tests ski jumping and cross-country skiing talents, there isn’t a lot of cash to allocate in the first place.
Nordic combined Olympian Taylor Fletcher, 23, works as a waiter at Red Banjo Pizza in Park City, Utah, to offset expenses. The restaurant also has employed some of his Nordic combined teammates and women’s ski jumper Jessica Jerome, giving the athletes flexible hours that leave plenty of time for training and competing.
Fletcher estimated it costs $20,000 annually to compete at the highest levels in his sport, though his team covers a good portion of travel and equipment costs. Still, if he wants a spare jumping suit or two it’s $600 apiece, a big chunk of cash with all his other expenses.
“I don’t have a full-time job, essentially,” said Fletcher. “So, rent is a big thing and food . . . I’ll come home [after the season] and start working at Red Banjo in April. Or, if I’m home for two weeks and I feel like working at night and making a few dollars here and there, I’ll do it.
“We’re constantly out there looking for sponsors and people to help us out.”
A little help
For all his success in the popular sport of snowboarding, gold medalist Powers knows how much outside support can help Olympians such as Fletcher and those who work in places such as the Red Banjo. Powers grew up in a single-parent home in the shadow of Vermont’s Bromley Mountain, where his mother worked in the cafeteria. “The mountain became my baby sitter on weekends and holidays,” said Powers. At 10, he qualified for age group nationals in California, but the cost of the trip proved prohibitive. It was only with a $500 grant from the Bromley Outing Club that he could go.
Powers won the competition, continued to get good results, made the US snowboard team five years later, and lived out the ultimate Olympic dream. His story illustrates how quickly an Olympic hopeful can progress from casual participation, weekends and holidays at a ski resort or group figure skating lessons, to something more serious and more costly. By founding the Level Field Fund with the support of other Olympic athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps, Powers aims to help promising athletes.
Since 2002, the fund, in concert with the Ross Powers Foundation and with the backing of Amherst-based OrthoLite, has awarded 266 grants worth a total of $437,000. There have been 129 grant recipients in 15 sports, including 12 who have competed in the Olympics.
“Small sports have organizations like the Level Field Fund that pop up,” said cross-country skier and grant money recipient Liz Stephen. “They help you and later you can give back so the next generation can benefit.”
The Level Field Fund is one of many avenues Winter Olympians can explore for funding. In addition to working jobs in the offseason, they court sponsors and try crowdfunding, online fund-raising of small amounts from many people. RallyMe is the official crowdfunding platform for several winter sports national teams, and dozens of up-and-coming and Olympic athletes have fund-raising pages on the site. Still, most athletes struggle to come anywhere near their goals.
“It’s just a way for people who want to donate money to me to have an easy way to do it,” said Dylan Ferguson, an aerialist from Amesbury, who set $20,000 as his RallyMe goal and has raised $6,308 to date. He missed making the 2014 Sochi Olympic team by a much narrower margin.
Snowboarder and plumber Cheever has received assistance from the Level Field Fund and, appropriately, Bradford White Water Heaters. But it’s still tough going.
“Right now, my financial planning is pretty much run up my credit cards for the year and give myself the best chance I can to compete,” said Cheever. “If all else fails, I’ll be in Boston, working my way out of credit card debt. But I am living the dream. If I had a million dollars, I’d be doing the same thing, just with a little less stress involved.”
Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier caption for a photo that was accompanying this story misidentified the nationality of a snowboarder performing at a World Cup event. The man, like his companion, was a member of the Austrian national team.