With the Winter Olympics around the corner, U.S. athletes find that getting there may be the hardest discipline of all.
BY TYLER ALLEN
As anyone in the Northern Rockies will tell you, skiing is an expensive sport. To compete at the highest level can be a monumental cost.
In March 2017, Canada’s government committed an extra $5 million of its federal budget to its Athlete Assistance Program, which helps pay cost-of-living expenses for its Olympic competitors. An 18 percent increase in funding, it brings the monthly stipend to nearly $1,800 in Canadian dollars for Olympians.
The U.S. government doesn’t pay its athletes a cent, and we’re the only large country in the world that doesn’t commit federal funds to our Olympic team. Unless you’re a Lindsey Vonn or a Shaun White, with lucrative sponsorship deals, getting to PyeongChang, Korea, in February for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic games is a financial Everest to summit.
Andrew Kurka grew up in Palmer, Alaska, and was a six-time state champion in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. When an ATV accident resulted in three damaged vertebrae, his career on the mat was over at age 13. But two years later he tried a monoski for the first time and his athletic talents translated to the snow—in 2017 he won gold, silver and bronze medals in Alpine skiing at the World Championships in Tarvisio, Italy.
It wasn’t an easy road for Kurka to reach the pinnacle of his sport. Growing up with a single mother supporting two boys, the expense of skiing was out of reach for the family.
“I actually had to go to a local mall and ask people for a dollar and two dollar donations to join the ski club so I could be a ski racer,” Kurka said. “I was able to raise $350 and … literally lived at the ski resort for three or four days a week.”
During the summer he would work two jobs to pay for his winter passion, eventually earning a spot on the U.S. team when he moved to Aspen, Colorado, to train with the Paralympic Development Program. Even after moving to Aspen for the winters, he continued to work two jobs in Alaska during the offseason, queuing up tracks as a radio DJ and managing retail personnel at a Sportsman’s Warehouse.
“I make a good living, but that next group of guys are basically going into debt every year. It’s the unfortunate reality of a lot of our sports, especially in skiing.”
“Ski racing is expensive,” says Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety. “My parents spent a lot of money to get me on the U.S. Ski Team. Even once you make the U.S. Ski Team, you get handed a 20-plus thousand dollar bill.”
One of the best giant slalom skiers in history, Ligety won his first Olympic gold medal at the 2006 Turin games at age 21, the youngest American male to ever take gold in Alpine skiing. He cemented his legacy at the 2014 Sochi Olympics with another first, earning the United States its first ever men’s giant slalom gold.
Ligety said he’s lucky to be where he is today. Though it didn’t hurt that he grew up in the winter sports mecca of Park City, Utah, U.S. skiers are at a major financial disadvantage to their European counterparts, even those that aren’t on the top-tier teams for their respective countries.
“They’re actually making a normal salary with benefits on top of what they make in their ski career. I mean that’s unheard of as an American,” he said. “The 40th [ranked skier] in the world in Europe can actually sustain a living, where if you’re 40th in the world [from] the U.S. you’re writing big checks every year.”
Geography helps his competitors too. European races are typically within a day’s drive from each other, whereas American skiers often have to fly to contests, incurring the associated costs of hauling their quiver
“I make a good living, but that next group of guys are basically going into debt every year,” Ligety said. “It’s the unfortunate reality of a lot of our sports, especially in skiing.”
The athletes competing in PyeongChang didn’t only surmount financial hurdles to reach the world’s biggest stage. Skiing, especially, is a sport that can exact a huge toll on the loved ones supporting Olympic dreams.
Mikaela Shiffrin exploded onto the alpine skiing circuit as a teenage prodigy in 2011, making her World Cup debut at age 15, and took her first podium later that season, earning a Rookie of the Year nod. After taking the overall World Cup slalom title in 2013, she won Olympic gold in Sochi, Russia, becoming the youngest slalom champion ever. Of the young boys and girls who’ll be watching her try to repeat golden success in PyeongChang she’s cautious of giving them full-throated encouragement to try to follow in her ski tracks.
“You wanna say, ‘If this is you’re dream go for it,’ because ideally just being able to have the dream, have the passion and work hard would be enough,” she told me. You can’t just go down to the local tennis court to practice, Shiffrin added, you need to get on the snow year round when you’re competing at an international level. And that means training in South America or New Zealand during our summers. “So, it’s very, very difficult and it causes a lot of stress in families and I think, to be honest, it breaks families apart to have to deal with the stress of ski racing.”
“I actually had to go to a local mall and ask people for a dollar and two dollar donations to join the ski club so I could be a ski racer…”
The U.S. Olympic Committee is trying to address the hardship that Olympic dreams exact on athletes and their families. Without the benefit of federal dollars, our elite athletes look to sponsorships, fundraising and, recently, help from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Foundation, which was founded in 2013.
The organization serves as the primary fundraising source for the USOC. Dan Zelson, a second homeowner in Big Sky, Montana, joined the board six years ago to pair his love for the games with a commitment to philanthropy. He’s one of a handful of board members with homes in the Yellowstone Club, a private ski and golf community tucked next to Big Sky Resort.
“It seemed like a pretty good fit,” Zelson said. “We’ve always been involved in charitable [causes]. A lot of it, unfortunately, is some of the sadder stuff, medical causes and hunger.
“You hear about families that give up everything to pay for training, or travel [by] car and sleep in the car, the stories continue that way over and over again. It’s definitely a hard life, but I think the rewards in the end are pretty special.”
Zelson sees Olympic athletes as the epitome of role models for the nation’s youth, despite the spotlight only illuminating their talents every four years.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of the Olympics,” Zelson said. “I used to be the kid that would hang the American flag off the back of the TV and stay up late at night to watch all of the events.” He said his own kids have always admired professional football and baseball players, but he wanted to expose them to athletes that need all the right things—hard work, opportunity and a little bit of luck—to align at once to be successful in competition.
“… it’s very, very difficult and it causes a lot of stress in families and I think, to be honest, it breaks families apart to have to deal with the stress of ski racing.”
While it troubles him that American athletes have to compete against a pool of well-funded talent from the other large countries in the world, he sees value in the independence our Olympic athletes have—they’re not de facto employees of the state.
“It’s sort of a proud tradition that the athletes stand separate from the government, and that way they’re not influencing their true amateur [status],” Zelson said. “You could make an argument that a country like China that puts billions of dollars into their program, they’re really professional athletes competing for their country, versus a country like the United States that doesn’t do that.”
Zelson says most Americans don’t realize that these competitors—with the support of the foundation—are funding their own training, travel, equipment and living expenses.
His current passion is working with the Athlete Career Education program, created to give athletes real-world skills they take with them when the spotlight of the Olympic games has dimmed. Approximately 120 companies are involved, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has a program called The Contenders that employs Olympic hopefuls while they train, and hires them as spokespeople for the stores and brand.
USOC-ACE also offers career transition workshops, training and mentorship, as well as tuition grants and continuing education programs.
“Ultimately, as a group we’re going to figure out a way to take care of these athletes,” Zelson said. “It’s almost like the GI bill—[if] you serve this country in the military, your college is paid for and it really should be for the Olympics. There should be a way that you have a job waiting for you, training waiting for you and education waiting for you.”
“If I qualify, I’m going … I’ll sell everything I have to go.”
Mark Urich nearly qualified for the Sochi Olympics despite learning how to ski just three years before the 2014 games. The Colorado native was born with a birth defect that left his femur deformed and without a fibula in his right leg, and at age 2 his leg was amputated to ensure a better prosthetic fit.
He moved to Big Sky in the fall of 2014 after a brutal assault by gang members caused him to leave his native Denver, Colorado. He’s sponsored by the Yellowstone Club, which supports him with a modest amount of cash, and works for himself as a graphic and web designer—often at night after full days of training—to support his Olympic pursuit.
Urich is still on the development team, so he pays everything out of pocket and says financial backing doesn’t come easily to him and his teammates. A fundraiser in November at a local brewery netted him nearly $1,000, but that’s a small dent in the $15,000 he expects this season’s campaign to cost.
“Finding sponsorships for the Paralympics is a huge ordeal,” Urich said. “They don’t televise Paralympics [and] there’s not a lot of exposure in our sport in general.”
The running joke among his teammates is that people will ask what type of skis they like to race with—and the honest answer is whatever’s free, he says.
He jokes that one silver lining of having one leg is that a pair of skis will give him one to race with and one to train on. He thought he had a sponsorship lined up with Rossignol and, with humor in his voice, told me they sent him a single, used slalom ski—without a binding.
Urich’s love for the sport and the camaraderie he has with his teammates is palpable through the phone. He is squarely focused on getting the result that will land him a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team, and although he was on the outside looking in when we spoke in early November, he said his point total was one good race away from qualifying for Korea.
“I have four races to do it, to qualify, but it could happen in one run,” Urich said. And that makes all of the training and fundraising worth it. He’s throwing many thousands of dollars at a dream that may not materialize, and if it does, will make the necessary sacrifices to get himself halfway across the world for a chance to perform at the ultimate contest in his sport.
“If I qualify, I’m going,” he said. “I’ll sell everything I have to go.”
Zelson says stories like Urich’s or Andrew Kurka’s are more rule than exception for Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls. The determination and focus they bring to their training, fitness and nutrition can help them overcome the enormous financial odds stacked against them.
“These kids are so determined that one way or another they’re going to figure it out on their own,” he said. But Zelson hopes that through the work of USOPF one day the costs won’t be a distraction from the pursuit of Olympic gold.
“These athletes should only be focused on their training,” Zelson said. “If people really understood how our athletes are funded … they would step up in a big way to make that change.”
Whether the day ever comes when U.S. Olympic and Parlaympic athletes have the financial support to focus solely on their training, the message from our country’s elite skiers to the next generation of world-class competitors is one of grit and determination.
“All I could tell those young kids is ‘have the passion,’” Shiffrin said. “There’s a lot of days … [that] are going to be really frustrating, when you feel like you can’t get there, you can’t get to where you want to be. But those moments of success, whatever you define success as, they’re incredible and it makes it so worth it.”
When the world’s attention turns to the slopes of PeongChang for a fortnight in February, you won’t just see the pinnacle of athletic preparation. In the American athletes, you’ll see the culmination of hard-fought victory already won.
Tyler Allen is the managing editor of Mountain Outlaw magazine.