Before I came to Princeton, I had established a fairly typical young person’s employment record: glittering instances of food service, delivery driving, and gritting my teeth through low-to-mid-range retail. All of my previous jobs have had their perks and their drawbacks, but none of them have ever been quite like the job I keep now in Princeton. For as much as I would like to write an entry about my financial situation in Princeton being centered around prize monies, endorsements and stipends, I can’t. Instead, this is an entry about being attacked by housecats, ripped off by heroin addicts, scrubbing toilets, and pureeing cauliflower. Rowing may be my primary responsibility while I’m in Princeton, but I have to have money in order to afford to row.
One of the most common questions I get asked about my lifestyle in Princeton is whether or not I work. The answer is always and definitely yes, because like a lot of places in the US, Princeton is an expensive place to live. Considering property rental, car insurance, health insurance and then basics like groceries and gas, things add up. Thanks to the athletic department at the University of Washington, I was able to graduate in 2006 with no debt. That means in order to stay afloat in Princeton I just have to break even every month, but that’s not always as easy as it may seem. This point is especially valid now that I am on leave for nearly two months and will be continuing to pay bills while I earn absolutely no income in San Diego.
I began looking for a job in mid-August, when I decided for certain that I was going to stay and train in Princeton year-round. I sent out a slough of resumes and cover letters, but the job I currently hold fell in to my lap, when a Help Wanted ad contacted me about being a personal assistant and direct care provider for a woman who is chronically ill in the Princeton area. We met the next day, and I decided that the job would be a good balance of complex problem-solving and simple errands; service and partnership. Most importantly, the hours and the work environment were completely flexible, so I could work around my (sometimes erratic) training schedule, and show up in sweats without having to worry. I started working in early September.
Since then, each day proves to be its own unique adventure between workouts. I work between four and five hours per day, five days per week. My work takes me all over New Jersey and Pennsylvania driving to different medical appointments and specialists; I work closely with my employer as a friend and confidant (she especially loves for me to tell her about all my misadventures with the men’s team); I cat-sit for house pets which seem to have more personality than a lot of people I know; I cook, I clean, I do laundry. Some days we just sit and watch TV. Given the intensely personal nature of the work that I do, sometimes the personal politics that include the friends, neighbors, clients and immediate family members of my employer are unavoidable, and sometimes overwhelming. But ultimately the work that I do has developed into a new and unique employment experience for me, and has made me consider and appreciate certain aspects of my own life in new ways.
Working isn’t always easy (is it ever?). Even with a full understanding of how fortunate I am to have a work situation that is flexible, casual and never boring, some days after a particularly hard workout, or maybe after a series of hard workouts, I don’t think that I have the patience or the endurance to organize another person’s life that day. Some days I would rather just sleep and recover. Some days I would rather take care of my body and prepare for the next challenge in my training so I can come to practice the next morning bringing my very best. Usually those are the days that one or more bills arrive in the mail.
Of course, my situation is not necessarily the standard for PTC athletes. The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and USRowing have established a tiered incentive program for elite rowers to distribute financial aid to eligible athletes in order to eliminate or reduce the need for top-level athletes to work. The available support includes opportunity for monthly stipends ($1000) and/or athlete health insurance. And as nice as it is to be financially compensated for doing what you love, the USOC Athlete and Medical Support Plan is more than just a reward for top-level performance. It is the freedom to focus wholly on training and developing your skills as an athlete with fewer distractions. It is the freedom to choose exactly how to best spend your recovery time, be it working, volunteering, eating, sleeping, or doing nothing at all. Ultimately it is the confidence of having support for what you do, and being completely at liberty to perform your best by distributing your energy as you see fit. Some athletes receiving USOC aid do choose to work, for a variety of reasons. But the difference between working because you want to, and working because you have to, is vast.
This is not an entry meant to create divide between the haves and the have-nots. Even if it were, I don’t think the distribution of funding is drastic enough to create a viable division in talent or performance within our group. But I do think it is reasonable to make it clear just how much nothing all of us have in the face of such great expectations and responsibility; and also differentiate our sport from a typical understanding of what it means to be a “professional” athlete. I try not to complain about not having a lot of money, though I do miss the days where I didn’t have to budget my groceries to the penny, and keep piles of receipts around to track my monthly expenditures. I wouldn’t call my life poor, despite just hovering above the poverty line. It is rich in experience that I know will eventually play a great part in forming the person I will become.
But until then I will enjoy my time here at the OTC where I won’t have to worry about grocery shopping or paying for gas, and I’ll rest as much as I want without having to report in work.
See you out there,