Like Many Nowadays, Skiers Work to Make Ends Meet
Forget about who wants to be a millionaire; skiers simply looking for financial stability
Feb. 6, 2009
By PAT GRAHAM
Not by choice did U.S. Olympic skier Kaylin Richardson politely decline dinners out with teammates.
Nor, truth be told, did she really want to impose on acquaintances and distant relatives by staying with them. Or resist buying that cool sweater she really wanted. Or keep close tabs on her bank statements.
For Richardson, all the cost-cutting came out of necessity, because the U.S. Ski Team told her it could not longer foot the bill for her World Cup travel expenses. She's one of several Alpine racers heading to the Feb. 12-28 Vancouver Games who's been forced to deal with the tough realities of being something less than a star in something less than a big-time sport in the United States during a major economic meltdown.
"If you're winning ski races, then you're going to have plenty of money, and you're doing fine," said Erik Fisher, a first-time Olympian who lives in Middleton, Idaho. "But it does drop off really fast, though. If you're not winning, you're not making that much money."
Consider: The skiers don't really draw a salary for being on the U.S. team.
Although finishing first at one of the better-paying World Cup races can earn a check for $100,000, usually only around 30 of the 70 or more entrants leave with any prize money at all — and that can be less than $1,000.
Then again, at least things are better than in the 1950s, when racers were sent home with radios and electric shavers.
"Ski racers live a very frugal lifestyle," said downhiller Scott Macartney, who missed making this U.S. Olympic team. "You've got to be pretty conservative. You can't be running up the huge credit card (bills)."
Not in this day and age, certainly.
The U.S. Ski Team's governing body, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, has struggled to attract new business partners and was forced to cut 10 percent from the salary of every employee, including CEO Bill Marolt.
The USSA is not alone when it comes to money issues. The British Olympic Association announced Friday that its ski and snowboard federation went bankrupt — although the country's 14 athletes in those sports will still compete in Vancouver.
Coaches and athletes alike have felt the effects. U.S. women's Alpine coach Jim Tracy saved money by skipping the trip to a race in Levi, Finland, this season.
"It was a very, very challenging spring," men's coach Sasha Rearick said. "We had to say to certain athletes that normally would be funded, 'This year we can't fund you.'"
Like Richardson, Sarah Schleper of Vail, Colo., was not on the "A" squad this season, meaning many thousands of dollars worth of travel, food and lodging weren't going to be coming from the team.
Schleper basically funds herself, traveling with her husband and 2-year-old son in tow as she gets ready for her fourth Olympics.
Richardson faced two options: quit skiing, even though the Olympics were on the horizon, or plunder personal savings in an attempt to earn a spot on the roster heading to Vancouver.
Some choice, huh? There wasn't really any question about what she would do.
"I'm a two-time Olympian now," said the 25-year-old Richardson, who's from Edina, Minn. "No one can take that away from me. No amount of money can take that away from me."
Richardson briefly contemplated getting a summer job to keep the cash flowing in. But how? Ski racing is a full-time occupation. So dipping into savings was the only way.
She said there is "a possibility to break even" this year, thanks to prize money and small sponsorships.
"I'm going to learn from the experience," Richardson said, "and hopefully I'll have a great year and be back to where I was."
She also is taking part in the U.S. Ski Team's tuition-free program at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Vancouver-bound skiers such as Leanne Smith and Megan McJames are enrolled in the program, as well, attending classes when they're in the area for training.
As is the case for so many Olympic events, this is a sport of sacrifice, of devotion and dedication, of making ends meet, no matter what it takes. Ski racing is not exactly one of those pursuits that makes many athletes rich beyond their wildest dreams.
There's only one real way to make money in this sport — ski fast. Do that, and endorsement deals may follow. That's where the biggest dollars lie.
Some skiers — the very best — are able to line up lucrative endorsement deals: Two-time overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn, for example, counts Red Bull, Alka-Seltzer Plus and bread-maker Oroweat among her sponsors.
Others, though, know they need to tap entrepreneurial energies, so they end up starting companies with an eye to making money now or down the road. That's what Fisher and 2006 Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety did.
Ligety started Shred Optics, which designs ski goggles, sunglasses and helmets. Fisher launched Skodeo.com, a Web site for people to resell outdoor sporting gear — sort of a cross between eBay and craigslist.
Ligety decided to get his own brand when kids were e-mailing him about the pink-and-green goggles he wore at the Turin Games.
The goggles have been a hit in Europe and are quickly catching on in the U.S.
"We're not raking in the dough yet," Ligety said. "I didn't realize it was going to be as much work as it was when I first started. I thought it was going to kind of run itself and it was going to be super easy to sell products. That wasn't necessarily the case."
Fisher knows the feeling. After blowing out his knee nearly two years ago, he decided to invest around $20,000 in his venture, hoping it would be a fallback option once his racing career ends.
"I'm fully hands-on," Fisher said. "I'm learning a lot, and it's been fun."
Macartney, meanwhile, is working with the World Cup Dreams Foundation, an organization created in 2005 to subsidize Alpine athletes not completely funded by the U.S. team.
First-time Olympian Jake Zamansky of Aspen, Colo., is one beneficiary of the program.
"At a certain point," Macartney said, "you realize, 'I have to ski fast or I'm going to be late on my mortgage.' It gets down to that."
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