Most of us are looking for just a few things in life. One of them is a job. The second is for the job to offer a sense of fulfillment, so we're not spending our workdays staring out the window (or worse, at a cubicle wall). And third is for the job to provide enough income to give us a sense of financial security.
Olympic rower Megan Kalmoe has two of those things. Beginning as a sophomore walk-on for the University of Washington rowing team in 2002, the Minnesota native worked her way up the team roster and eventually secured an invitation to try out for the Olympic rowing team after graduation. She earned spots on the 2008 and 2012 teams, and she's now preparing for her third Olympic games in 2016.
Kalmoe refers to her job as "awesome" and "the best." But as the second most experienced athlete at the Olympic Rowing Training Center in Princeton, New Jersey, Kalmoe earned exactly $800 per month during the first quarter of 2014. "I wasn't able to live on it," she said. "Rent, gas, groceries, car insurance and credit cards are the priorities, but I couldn't cover all the basics this winter on my stipend, so I had to use up what little I had saved."
Kalmoe's income is determined by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and paid through a grant. The grant amount depends on a number of factors, including the athlete's performance. It can increase or decrease throughout the year. At her current rate, Kalmoe will earn about $9,600 in 2014, well below the federal poverty line. At the end of each month, Kalmoe says her bank account resembles a doughnut.
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"You get [to the Olympic Training Center], and you're just so excited to be here that you're not thinking four, eight or 12 years down the line about how your finances might be impacted if you commit to this lifestyle for that long," Kalmoe said. Perpetually stressed about making ends meet during training, she wrote a blog post about her experiences. She did this knowing that talking about financial troubles as an athlete is taboo. For example, look no further than the response to Lolo Jones's Vine video about her $747 paycheck for seven months of bobsled training. When you play a sport for a living, complaints about money are the last thing the public wants to hear, even if you raise a valid point. "We're not supposed to talk about it and we're not supposed to reveal that a lot of people have these struggles," Kalmoe said. "If you're not supporting yourself or not making it, it's a form of weakness, especially in a group like this that's so competitive about everything, athletically and socially."
Predictably, Kalmoe's post elicited vocal responses—some supportive, others far less so. "If you want to compete, you will have to find other means to support yourself. It's the price you pay," one comment read, suggesting Kalmoe find time to work another job. Kalmoe's response? "How?" The Olympic rowing team alternates between two and three practices a day, every day. On a three-practice day, Kalmoe must be at the boathouse off-and-on from 6:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., with short breaks between practices to eat, hydrate and prepare for the next practice.
"Get a sponsorship!" another comment reads. Let's face it: rowing isn't exactly America's national pastime. How many companies are lining up to sponsor endurance athletes whose sport is rarely on television and whose biggest tournaments take place outside the United States?
The opportunity exists to earn extra money through the USOC's Operation Gold, which awards cash bonuses to high-performing teams at the World Championships or the Olympics. World Championship medalists receive $5,000; Olympic gold medalists can earn $25,000. But divided by the four years it takes to reach the Olympics, that works out to roughly $6,250 a year. Silver and bronze medalists get smaller prizes. No medal? No money. "It's not a lot," said Kalmoe, who earned a bronze at the 2012 Games. "It definitely helps, but it's not a ton."
Athletes like Kalmoe are left with only one option: performing well enough to raise their individual grants, which can lead to cuts in funding for other teammates to even things out. Kalmoe recently took part in the National Selection Regatta for women's pairs, an intra-squad race within the Women's U.S. Rowing Training Center Club to select boats that will compete in the World Championships later this year. Kalmoe and her teammates were told the top two pairs would receive additional money in their grants for the second quarter of 2014. Kalmoe said, "Part of the time you're thinking, 'Oh, I just really want to beat the other boats and be the fastest boat,' and part of the time you're thinking, 'If I don't get top two, I might get my funding cut.' You're kind of racing for dollars out there, which you shouldn't be."
Kalmoe and her partner won the women's pair at the Regatta, meaning her grant should be getting bumped up next quarter.
The issue is not unique to rowing. During the 2012 London Games, only 50 percent of American track and field athletes ranked in the top 10 nationally in their individual events make more than $15,000 a year. It's much the same for many other Olympic sports. And with no clear solution on the horizon, U.S. athletes are left with a choice: find another line of work or be prepared to have money stresses on your mind 24/7 throughout your career.
In her blog post, Kalmoe stated she will leave the Olympic track with zero savings, zero investments and zero in the way of a retirement plan. "They expect you to be a full-time athlete and behave like a full-time athlete and treat your training like it's a job to be really successful and perform at the highest level," she said. "But we aren't able to survive on what they provide us. We can't survive on competition, we can't survive on medals and we can't survive on the training center life. I think I do have a really cool job. It's just not really a sustainable thing."
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