The rewards for competing in the Olympics this winter in Pyeongchang are largely symbolic for the vast majority of athletes who won’t win medals or sign lucrative endorsement deals. And the financial strain their years of training puts on their families can hit hard.
“It’s a daunting challenge,” said Richard Parsons, whose two eldest children are the reigning U.S. and world junior ice dance champions.
Rachel and Michael Parsons’ win at the 2017 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Taiwan this year marked a milestone in their quest to compete at the 2022 Olympics — if not sooner, should they clinch the spot as alternates for Team USA at the 2018 Games.
Once they’ve qualified for the Olympics, athletes’ flights, accommodations, food and training are paid for by the United States Olympic Committee. But getting to that point? That’s on the athletes, and often their families.
The cost of the Parsons’ 12-year journey thus far has been over $500,000, to cover the ice time, coaching, choreography, dance classes, costumes, ice skates, registration fees and travel expenses necessary to help Rachel and Michael compete at the elite level on the international stage, their dad said.
“When they were starting out, it was just a thousand or two a year early on. Then it started ramping up steadily as they started competing nationally and then internationally,” Richard Parsons said, noting the annual expenses increased from an average of $40,000 a year to $75,000 last year.
And the Maryland family is not an outlier in how much it spends — eye-popping expenses are par for the course for most Olympians. Parsons said some teams in their sport spend more than $100,000 a year to train at the elite level.
Mike Trapp, the 2011 and 2012 U.S. snowboarding champion, said an average season training costs about $35,000 in equipment, coaching and traveling expenses. It’s more expensive in a year leading up to the Olympics.
The native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is training in Italy ahead of World Cup qualifiers in December and January. In order to score a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Trapp needs to finish in the top three in one of five events taking place in Italy, Austria and Slovenia.
It took nearly two decades of training and discipline, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars, just for Trapp to reach the cusp of Olympic selection.
FUNDING THE ‘A TEAM’
The United States is one of the only countries with an Olympic committee that is not supported through funding from the federal government. The separation was established in 1978 with the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which gave sole control over America’s representation in the games to the USOC and the various sports’ national governing bodies under the committee.
Under this legislation, the USOC has complete control over the intellectual property associated with the Olympic Games, giving it exclusive distribution rights over logos and other licensing material.
The autonomy also means the USOC is responsible for raising and allocating all of the funding needed for the U.S. to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics. It does this through trademark licensing, corporate sponsors and broadcast revenue.
Some of the money is also distributed to various sports’ national governing bodies to help fund athlete development. Richard Parsons said that once his kids made the jump to the junior level in ice dancing they began receiving support from the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which helped offset some of their costs.
The money is allocated based on performance, or “likelihood that an athlete will win a medal,” according to Team USA spokesman Mark Jones.
This pay-for-performance model leaves some organizations struggling to support their athletes.
“U.S. Ski and Snowboard can only fund the A team,” Trapp said.
As a B team member, Trapp, who moonlights as a mechanic during his summers, has had to foot the bill for his training. “I’m doing this all on my own dime,” he said. “That job keeps the dream alive.”
The A team is fully funded in the U.S. ski team’s budget, which allocates about $100,000 per athlete annually, according to U.S. Ski President Tiger Shaw. “But there’s a $2 million funding gap in paying for travel costs for B and C team athletes.”
Members of the B and C teams are billed $15,000 to $20,000 at the beginning of each season to close the gap. Shaw acknowledged that is a significant amount of money, but the only other option, he said, is to cut half the team. He said the organization works with the athletes to help them find sources of revenue.
Like many elite athletes competing in snowsports, Trapp attended a ski academy during his formative school years, albeit part-time. From sixth to 11th grade, Trapp transferred out of his regular school curriculum for part of the year to train at Waterville Valley Academy in New Hampshire, where tuition for a three-month season cost $15,000, not including equipment and race fees.
That figure pales in comparison to the $55,000 tuition Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin paid to attend Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont full-time.
Shiffrin was born in Vail, Colorado, “an epic ski town,” she told NBC. Both her parents and her older brother are skiers, and they grew up with skiing as their “family recreational sport.” She recalled starting out in a kids’ “Fresh Tracks” training program by age 5.
When it came time for high school, the prodigy who was already winning races opted for a ski academy. She gained entrance to one of the country’s most exclusive ski academies, where Shiffrin trained for hours each day, learning “a lot about time management” and “being responsible.” Shiffrin went on to claim gold in the slalom in Sochi.
But it’s not just expensive to attend an exclusive training program. To even be considered for admission to an elite ski school, applicants usually need a solid foundation in skiing and a resume of winning races.
“You had to apply and get in, and part of that process obviously is showing your skiing resume — you couldn’t just be a beginner,” said Gordy Megroz, a graduate of Stratton Mountain School in Vermont.
And though some ski schools offer junior classes for skill-development training, “realistically you’d need to live within four or five hours of the ski area to be able to get to practice, races and lessons,” said Megroz, highlighting the geographical difficulties some aspiring athletes face.
He learned to ski growing up in Vermont, he said, by standing on his father’s and grandfather’s skis when he was as young as 2 years old. He started competing when he was 10. His parents drove him to races on weekends.
“You have to pay for everything from season passes to equipment to race fees,” Megroz said. “It’s certainly an expensive sport — no disputing that. People who get into ski racing probably are pretty affluent.”
Former U.S. Ski Team coach and co-founder of the alpine skiing World Cup, Robert “Bob” Beattie, said the cost of ski racing is pricing out talent who have no income and “killing our sport.”
“We’re only getting kids with money,” Beattie said in a March interview with the Aspen Times. “Kids like Billy Kidd, Jimmie Heuga and Buddy Werner would never be ski racers now. They could never afford it. Their parents didn’t have that kind of money.”
Kidd and Huega became the first American men to win Olympic medals in skiing, taking silver and bronze respectively in the slalom at the 1964 Games.
‘WE’VE HAD TO MAKE A LOT OF SACRIFICES’
Chasing the Olympic dream is a risky venture, and for most families, raising an Olympic athlete is a tremendous investment with no guarantee of a monetary return.
Many Olympians are young, and a lot of their expenses are covered by their parents. The average Olympic hopeful will train for a decade or more. And with athletes devoting more than six hours a day, six days a week to training, there isn’t much room for a part-time job or career.
Michael Parsons, now 22, began skating at age 7, and sister Rachel Parsons, 19, at age 6. Their parents credit the Wheaton Ice Skating Academy, a Maryland rink run by Russian ice dancing champions Alexei Kiliakov and Elena Novak, for making the endeavor affordable in the early years by offering classes in group sessions, which are less expensive than private lessons.
But as their kids began moving up the ranks, they required more training, fresh routines, new costumes and more money. And just as they were taking off on the world stage, the 2008 recession hit and Richard Parsons was laid off from his job by 2009.
“We’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices. We’re just a middle class family and we’ve had to be very creative, especially with two,” Parsons said, noting the family doesn’t take vacations, he and his wife drive older-model, well-worn cars and they don’t shop for new clothes.
Team USA speedskater Emily Scott made headlines in 2013 when she applied for food stamps while training for the Olympics after her monthly stipend from the U.S. Speed Skating Federation got cut from $1,950 to $600. Scott turned to crowdfunding site GoFundMe for help, ultimately flying to Sochi thanks to thousands of strangers.
Like many athletes vying for the Olympics, Trapp and the Parsons have also turned to crowdfunding to raise the money needed to fund their goals. Even entire teams and national sports organizations are turning to sites like Rallyme and Dreamfuel to help foot the bill to prepare for the Winter Games.
But despite all the hardships, Richard Parsons said Rachel and Michael have gotten so much out of the experience that “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
NBC’s Emilie Mutert contributed to this report.
Published at 7:21 AM PDT on Nov 1, 2017 | Updated at 7:53 AM PDT on Nov 1, 2017