The Harsh Financial Reality Of Being A Paralympic Athlete

Danelle umstead rob umsteadQuinn Rooney/Getty ImagesThe Umsteads after winning bronze in 2010.

Danelle Umstead is a 41-year-old alpine skier, and eight weeks from now she’s going to Sochi to compete in the 2014 Paralympic Games.

Umstead is legally blind, and was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She competes with the help of her husband Rob, who quit his job as a ski coach to become her full-time guide. The two of them won bronze medals in both the downhill and super combined at the 2010 Games.

Getting to the Paralympics is a full-job time with limited compensation. The Umsteads spend $US90,000 a year on equipment, travel, and child care for their son. In Paralympic years, those costs are alleviated by an influx of sponsorships. This year, Umstead is sponsored by TD Ameritrade — which is also funding the training of a 2018 Olympic hopeful in her sport. But in the years between each games, it’s much more difficult to find endorsements.

Money is not the end goal for Paralympic athletes, it’s simply a means to keep doing something they love.

We spoke to Umstead over e-mail about what financial challenges face Paralympic athletes, and what can be done to ease that burden.

BUSINESS INSIDER: Have you faced any financial challenges on your way to Sochi?

DANELLE UMSTEAD: Rob leaving his career as a ski coach to become a guide full-time was a big financial challenge for us. Not only did it mean losing his income for our family, but it also meant double the expenses for both of us to travel and train. We also had to consider the costs associated with taking care of our young son so we both could train together.

BI: How much do you spend on equipment?

DU: Our season budget is about $US90,000. This includes equipment, coaching, travel/lodging and child care.

BI: What is your total estimated cost (travel, training, etc.) of going to Sochi?

DU: The season budget is the same whether it is a Paralympic year or not. In years when we are not going to the Games, we would instead be attending more World Cup races. In fact, a Paralympic season may be less expensive because the USOC funds the entire Sochi trip and all of the great support that goes along with it. It’s a little easier to find sponsorship income during a Paralympic season because more people want to be associated with the team going to the Games. The bigger challenge is finding companies that will still support you for the other three seasons in between the Games.

BI: Does the money you make from skiing make up for that cost?

DU: Paralympic skiing does not have prize money, so any income from the sport comes from sponsorship money. We have been lucky to have some great sponsors over the last couple of years — and we are proud to have TD Ameritrade on our helmets. Their support along with Ericsson and Powdr Corp. allow us to train year-round at an elite level and still pay the bills. Without their help, we would not be able to continue.

BI: What sort of sacrifices you’ve made, financial and otherwise, in order to achieve your goals?

DU: We have sacrificed some things along the way. The most difficult thing for us is time away from our son when we travel. We are unable to take him along to every event due to the extra costs. However, the rewards have far outweighed the sacrifices. Our son has been exposed to some great people and an amazing, athletic lifestyle — and we have been able to travel the world and work together. Looking back, we would not change a thing.

BI: What do you think can be done in order to help alleviate the financial stress that a lot of athletes face as they prepare for the Olympics and Paralympics?

DU: The fact that TV exposure is starting to increase is a huge step in the right direction. It would be great if this translated into more sponsorship offers for Paralympic athletes. It seems like more and more corporations are starting to use Paralympic athletes in their marketing strategies. It makes sense too. All of these athletes have amazing stories of perseverance and some would be excellent ambassadors for a company to be associated with. The stories these athletes have really hit home with the average American.

BI: What’s a fact of life for “non-famous” winter sports athletes that fans would find surprising?

DU: The training, racing and exciting competitions go on year after every year. Not just every four years for two weeks. Paralympic athletes work just as hard as the athletes you see on your TV playing the 4 major sports. It’s a full time job if you want to have success.

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