When I first started thinking about how to talk about my financial situation in a public forum like my blog, one of my teammates just laughed and said, “Ok, just make sure you don’t end up sounding like LoLo Jones!” (Jones earned a thumbs-down from the Internet and from her NGB for publicly complaining about her funding stipend pre-Sochi). So here’s my disclaimer: I’m not trying to embarrass anyone by discussing the financial aspects of being an amateur Olympic athlete. If anything, etiquette dictates that I should be the one who should be embarrassed since public discussion of one’s personal finances is usually frowned upon in polite society. But I started this blog a long time ago to try and de-mystify the lifestyle of athletes who are Olympic Hopefuls, and offer a lens into what doing this is really like. I write a lot of cute and inspirational things about training and selection and racing and travel and how physically and emotionally demanding those things are. Maybe sometimes I err on the side of the grandiose in my writing just for the sheer drama of it, but the one thing I will never default on in my posts is honesty. If you want to know what it’s really like to be one of us, you have to know that there is a huge part of this lifestyle that I consistently leave out of all of those other posts. And that is: that I never, ever, ever train or compete for one single day without worrying about how I am going to pay my rent.
First, let me explain how funding as an athlete works. For the most part, athletes rely on a grant system run by the non-profit, the United States Olympic Committee, known as Direct Athlete Support. All Olympic National Governing Bodies receive DAS grants from the USOC, but may structure its distribution in different ways in order to best meet the needs of their sport’s athletes. USRowing has organized its DAS so that athletes receive monthly checks, and the recipients and their respective amounts are re-evaluated quarterly. DAS amounts vary based on both subjective and objective criteria (performance, experience, etc.) and can be changed or terminated by USRowing throughout the year. Generally, athletes who receive DAS are individuals who have made the Olympic Team or the Senior National Team in a supported Olympic Boat Class in the preceding year. Opportunities for non-Team members to receive DAS are limited. There is a fixed budget for the amount of money that USRowing can give to its athletes through DAS in a year, which in turn is split in to four fixed quarterly figures. So what we find is that within this fixed structure, amounts distributed to DAS eligible athletes must balance each other out; so if one athlete receives a larger stipend during a particular quarter, another athlete must in turn take a pay cut to even out the budget. Moreover, the annual budget for DAS from the USOC does not necessarily increase each year with improved team performance, so even when more athletes qualify for DAS (aka our Team wins more medals at the World Championships), athletes may receive the same amount or even less money through DAS. I think of this as the “win more, earn less” problem, which seems to contradict the most basic rules of economics. For now, we do not have an outside source that can supplement the DAS budget, so what we get from the USOC is it. There is no way for athletes to earn more money throughout the year from USRowing or the USOC by showing up, making the Team, racing, and winning*.
I think it is generally understood that most amateur Olympic athletes who are training full time live a pretty modest lifestyle. There are exceptions, in some high-profile Olympic sports, but no one joins the USRowing Training Center thinking that their time on the National and Olympic Teams is going to be filled with glamor and luxury. However, there comes a point after choosing this lifestyle for several years where you learn to really appreciate the differences between thriving, living, and surviving. I have had financial ups and downs while I have been a resident athlete at the Training Center – sometimes things are really bad, and sometimes they are aren’t. Right now happens to be a pretty tough financial time for me, and I would be lying if I said that it didn’t affect my day-to-day, and my ability to train at my best. Because of a significant cut to my monthly funding from the USOC at the beginning of 2014, I have been forced to spend absolutely everything I had saved in order to make ends meet this winter. By the end of this month, I will not have any money left in my checking or my savings accounts.
The situation I find myself in now is one of the “perfect storm” variety. This year we were fortunate enough to be granted access to the US Olympic Training Center for a long, three-month camp that allowed us to escape the grueling East Coast winter and continue to train on the water in Chula Vista at a very high level. However, the cut to my funding was effective January 1 – right after camp had begun and I was committed to being in California for three months. My natural inclination at that time would have been to start looking for a job immediately in order to supplement my income and stay afloat. But being on the wrong coast and unavailable for interviews with potential employers in Princeton, let alone actually being in the office, made that impossible. So there wasn’t much to do but wait until I returned home, slowly burning through all my cash reserves while bills continued to roll in for my housing, car and credit cards. And did I mention that right before Christmas the transmission blew on my truck, adding an additional $3500 repair on to my already crushing financial burdens? Anything I had saved is gone. And without the help of my family and from the New York Athletic Club, I would not have been able to stay at camp this winter.
So now, as we are getting ready for the first National Selection Regatta at the end of April – an event that requires my absolute best performance as it is the first step in my possible selection to the 2014 National Team – at home I am frantically scrambling to try and figure out how I’m going to make it through the end of the month as my money runs out. I’m cutting expenses, budgeting, trying to figure out how I’m going to cover what needs to be covered, while also tying to put together a résumé and cover letters to send out with job applications. My attention should be focused on training, resting, recovery, and making my boat as fast as it can be. Instead, I’m feverishly working on my laptop, hoping that someone will think it’s a good idea to hire a part-time worker who is a full time athlete with no flexibility, no idea of a day’s schedule more than twelve hours in advance, and who sometimes needs to take a few weeks or a few months off at a time. So yeah. I worry. And then I worry that I’m worrying because it’s detracting from my training. And there’s nothing that I can do about it except hope that it’s all going to work out.
What I’ve come to realize after going through this for several years now, living month-to-month and never living within my means is this: I should just be able to train and treat my training like my job. My coaches and administrators expect that of me. They expect me to show up and train 30-40 hours per week, and also to focus myself on all the minutiae of self-care, recovery, nutrition and rest that supplement those daily hours of on-the-job performance. They want me to give one hundred percent of myself to my training, to prioritize my commitment to the Team over everything else, to lead by example, and to make it my personal responsibility to always find ways to make myself and my Team faster. I want that, and I love that that could be my job. But they won’t pay me like it’s my job. And on the women’s team, unfortunately having an actual job that pays like an actual job is not supported, or even realistic from a scheduling point of view. We just don’t have the time. So most athletes, myself included, depend entirely on their monthly DAS in order to survive. And the DAS grants are almost never enough to cover the cost of living in Princeton**.
For Quarter 1 of 2014, USRowing deemed me eligible for $800 per month through DAS. I am one of the most experienced athletes at the Training Center, with only one athlete here with more years of experience than me. I have committed my life to the Training Center and its athletes over the past eight years, but because of my 5th place finish in the W4X at the 2013 World Championships, USRowing values my contributions to the Team this year at only about $9600 (if I am lucky enough to keep my DAS Q2-Q4). Well below the federal poverty line. I have potential to earn more DAS (or less, or none!) for Quarters 2, 3, and 4 based on my performance at the NSR, the World Cups, and the World Championships. But as a baseline, this isn’t nearly enough for me to survive. And it’s definitely not enough for me to thrive. It is probably not a surprise that I earned more per month on my rowing scholarship at Washington than I do now as a two-time Olympian.
For me, this is a serious problem. I don’t think that as a thirty-year old woman with eight years of experience at the highest level in my field, I should seriously have to consider choosing between housing, my vehicle, my healthcare, or eating in order to continue to train and do my job. There is no dignity in living with no independence and burdened by ever-increasing debt in order to train and be a part of our nation’s Olympic Team. And there is absolutely no way that expecting athletes to live this way will foster our fastest, most successful Team.
USRowing has made it clear that there just isn’t any more money for anything, ever. We are constantly reminded that our team is underspending our biggest international competitors by staggering amounts, but that doesn’t ever seem to change. And as ever, we are made to believe that we should expect to be underpaid and underserved by our NGB because we somehow deserve it. Also that we shouldn’t waste our time imagining anything better. Athletes are keenly aware that the invitation to leave the Training Center, if we are unhappy with it or its resources, is always there (don’t be surprised if I get a[nother] reminder after posting this). We shouldn’t be doing this for the money, after all. We should be grateful for what we have.
And I have a lot to be grateful for. I rent a great house with one of my teammates from a wonderful landlord with an insanely low rate for the Princeton area. I have my truck, which is back to running great (for now), to get me to and from practice. I have my health. I have food in the house. But at this rate, I don’t have a way to maintain all of those things. And as tough as times are for me right now, there are currently people at the Training Center who receive even less funding than me, or none at all. I am lucky to have what I have.
I don’t do this for the money. I never have. But the bottom line is that I am bankrupting myself just to be able to show up, let alone make the team, and win medals. It’s a terrible realization looking back over two Olympic cycles to when I left college debt-free thanks to my rowing scholarship, and since then have lost money every year I’ve been at the Training Center. I lose more every day thanks to the credit cards I’ve depended on all the other times I’ve needed airfare to camp, or a new pair of running shoes, or gas, or groceries, and the cash has run out. Will it ever change? Will athletes ever have a real shot at a sustainable lifestyle while training to be Olympians? How fast could we be if athletes didn’t have to worry about affording housing, or food? Or what about having any opportunities to plan for their futures after rowing? The way things are going, I will exit the Olympic track at age 32 with no savings, no investments, no retirement plan, no house, no family, no practical career experience or résumé, no graduate education, and several thousand dollars of debt. All for a shot to be a part of the most powerful and prestigious Olympic Team in the world.
Is it a small price to pay? or a big one?
Long Live the Dream,
* The USOC does offer one supplemental program, “Operation Gold” which delivers cash bonuses to high-performing Teams after a World Championship performance. Medalists (gold, silver or bronze) receive $5000, A-finalists receive $2500. In the Olympic year, Op-Gold rewards are only paid to medalists: $25000 for gold, $15000 for silver, $10000 for bronze.
** the NYC area is one of the most expensive places to live in the US, with housing costs in Princeton seeing exorbitant inflation due to the presence of Princeton University.