Funding My Career

As I prepare to file my taxes for the final time as a “self-employed skier,” I have been thinking about how funding my career has been a challenge in and of itself as well as a valuable learning experience. Since I graduated high school 11 years ago, my funding model evolved into something more-or-less sustainable even without exceptional results.

This post is an overview of my yearly financial support. My hope is that up-and-coming American athletes can use my funding structure as a starting point for how they may support their own careers. Being an American Olympic athlete presents unique funding challenges and unique opportunities relative to Olympic athletes from other countries.

The biggest challenge for Americans is that, unlike almost every other country competing at the Winter Olympics, American athletes receive no governmental support. Many of our central European competitors receive salaries during their careers from governmental organizations like the police, the military or various customs agencies. Our Canadian friends get “carded,” which allows them to draw a small stipend from the federal government and/or the provincial government. Athletes from Norway and Sweden receive salaries straight from their National Ski Federations. I am in no way implying that all international skiers are fully supported and never have to worry about finances. I know for a fact that one Norwegian athlete who finished on the World Cup podium both this season and last season has to work a second job in addition to training in order to make enough money to keep his/her finances stable. I am simply saying that the funding challenges are different for American athletes than they are for athletes from other countries.

The biggest advantage of being an American athlete, when it comes to raising money, is that we have a culture of giving. Many people and organizations understand our financial challenges and want to help. My understanding is that it would be very odd, and potentially not well received, for central European athletes to ask their supporters to give them money to support their careers. The funding structure for my career has benefited from the American culture of giving.

It has been a difficult process for me to learn how to ask for money, and I still feel a sense of guilt every time somebody donates to my career. I have never squared this nagging question: Why should anybody give me money to support my privileged lifestyle of flying to posh ski resorts all over the world when there are many people who work hard and still struggle to pay for basic human necessities like housing, food and health care? The privilege and opportunities that have been defining features of my athletic career will be a motivating force for me for the rest of my life to work to give others opportunities to chase their own dreams.

The funding structure that I outline below is representative of the final 4 years of my career, from the Sochi Olympics to the PyeongChang Olympics. In order to protect my supporters, I do not always give exact dollar amounts. Instead, I will use the following ranges:

  • Title level support: $7,000-$20,000/year
  • Grant level support: $1,000-$7,000/year
  • Sponsor level support: $200-$1,000/year
  • Personal level support: $5-$200/year

As a broad generalization, it costs +/- $50,000 per year to compete at the Olympic level in cross-country skiing. Here is where that money came from for me:

  • Thoughtforms Builders
  • Madshus Skis
    • Title level support
    • I started working with Madshus when I was 16, and they stuck with me throughout my career. As a junior athlete, I didn’t have a contract with them; they simply gave me product. As an Under-23 athlete they offered me a “victory schedule” where I made sponsor level support from them based on my results. When I became a senior athlete, they offered me a retainer with title level support.
  • Anonymous donor
    • Title level support
    • This third “title level support” is really a product of two individuals. The first is the donor himself/herself. This individual filled a large funding gap for me. The support would not have happened without another supporter consistently lobbying the donor to support me and one other athlete. Not only do you need to be well connected as an athlete, you need supporters who are well connected and who are willing to fight for you.
  • Rocky Mountain Nordic Angel (RMNA)
    • Title level support (or hundreds of donations of personal level support)
    • This organization was founded in 2010 to help Colorado athletes cover the new funding gap that was created when the U.S. Ski Team stopped funding B Team athletes. RMNA raises money from personal donors at yearly fundraisers in Colorado, via online donations and from direct solicitations. Along with the NNF, RMNA covered all of my expenses that were previously covered by the U.S. Ski Team including airfare and room and board costs directly associated with international racing or U.S. Ski Team camps. In total, RMNA  covered +/-$15,000/year.
  • National Nordic Foundation (NNF)
    • Title level support (or thousands of donations of personal level support)
    • The NNF raises money from the ski community to support American cross-country skiers at all levels of the development pipeline. The NNF has given me up to $8,000/year towards U.S. Ski Team related expenses.
  • John Callahan and Zach Caldwell/Caldwell Sport
    • Title level support
    • This amount is not included in the $50,000/year estimate of costs to compete at the international level. My personal coaches, John and Zach, in addition to Zach’s company Caldwell Sport, have donated thousands of hours to my ski career. Besides coaching, they have both travelled internationally numerous times to support me. Zach, via Caldwell Sport, has also managed my ski fleet, waxed and ground hundreds of pairs of my skis and picked most of my skis from the factory in Norway.
  • Host families
    • Grant level support
    • Host families have been a huge part of the funding for my career. The Adams in Park City, and before that the Sinnotts in Sun Valley, plus other families around the country, have given me free rent (in-kind support of approximately $500/month x 7 months/year = $3500/year) plus food (in-kind support of approximately $100/week x +/-25weeks/year = $2500/year) for a total of around $6000/year of in-kind support
  • Ski and Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV)
    • Grant level support
    • SSCV has provided me in-kind support via waxing and logistics at domestic races and camps
  • Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club/Coldwell Banker Mason Morse Grant
    • Grant level support
    • The Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC) and realty firm Coldwell Banker Mason Morse have teamed up to offer yearly, grant-level support to international level alumni of AVSC.
  • USOC direct athlete support/ Marolt Athlete Endowment/William E. Simon Olympic Endowment
    • Grant level support
    • On some years, the US Olympic Committee gives athletes direct financial support. Three or four times during my career I have received between $2,000 and $4,000 from the USOC. The USOC also administers the William E. Simon Olympic Endowment, which an athlete can receive once during his or her career. I received the Simon Grant before the Sochi Olympics. The US Ski and Snowboard Administration administers the Marolt Athlete Endowment, which I received twice during my career.
    • Not all athletes are eligible for these grants, and there are numerous other grants which target specific demographic groups or geographic areas that weren’t available to me but could be to others.
  • USOC Elite Athlete Health Insurance
    • Grant level support
    • While I was on the US Ski Team, I received health insurance through the US Olympic Committee valued at around $5,000/year
  • My parents
    • Grant level support
    • First and obviously, my parents provided me with way more than grant level support throughout my career. However, since this outline is focused on the final four years of my career, the direct support that I received from my parents included my cell phone and phone plan and health insurance until I was 26 and was no longer eligible to be on their plan. It was important to me that I did not take cash support from my parents in the latter part of my career.
  • Julbo Eyewear
    • Sponsor level support
    • I have had a great relationship with Julbo over the past 4 years and received sponsor level support in my contract with them.
  • Toko gloves
    • Sponsor level support
    • I have worked with Toko since the US Ski Team stopped having a team-wide glove sponsorship, and they have supported me at the sponsor level each year.
  • Personal donations
    • Personal level to grant level support
    • Besides supporting my career through RMNA and NNF, many people have given directly to me, solicited or not.

This outline is not comprehensive. It does not include every dollar that I have received throughout my career. It is merely meant to demonstrate what it took to fund my Olympic ski career. Of course, simply saying thank you to all of you for your support and for giving me the opportunity to chase my dreams feels completely inadequate. I will never forget the community that made it all possible. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. All of the giving that I have received has energized me and reinforced my desire to give back.

2018 Olympic 4x10k Relay. Photo: Cody Downard