Malcolm Gladwell, renowned for his examination of factors that foster success, writes, “Achievement is talent plus preparation.” But in the sport of alpine ski racing, you can include “plus fundraising” to that equation.
Three-time Olympian Megan McJames, two-time Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht, independent Lila Lapanja, Greek-American racer AJ Ginnis, and current U.S. Ski Team athletes Breezy Johnson, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, and Nina O’Brien — what do they all have in common? Each athlete is one of many to accelerate to the top of the sport with the support of donors, funders, and supporting organizations.
Fundraising is strictly based on need. That financial need evolves by person, by team, and by goals. It has shifted for every athlete throughout his or her career yet has been an essential component for the most successful names in American ski racing. But why is there such a need for fundraising in our country, and how do these athletes get it done?
Assessing the gap
Nearly 16 years ago, Tom Karam, a successful Pennsylvania businessman and supporter of U.S. Skiing, learned that only the very best skiers in the country — and the world — are able to make a living as professional racers. That began the earliest years of the T2 Foundation, which would evolve in 2008 as the U.S. Ski Team was forced to impose hefty team fees to a number of their athletes.
In 2003, World Cup skiers Bryon Friedman and Erik Schlopy started World Cup Dreams Foundation (WCDF), which at the time served as an insurance package for injured athletes who were eliminated from earning an income. As T2 shifted its focus when the U.S. Ski Team imposed fees in 2008, so did WCDF.
“At the time, the ski team started requiring team fees amounting to $15,000 all the way up to the B team, and at the time, that was athletes ranked top 30 in the world,” said Tommy Biesemeyer, the newly appointed executive director of WCDF and former U.S. Ski Team member. “That was scaled all the way to the D and C team up to $35,000, so it was a pretty big price tag for athletes to be considered professional athletes.”
Those who were on the U.S. Ski Team during the time recall the financial stress and hindered team culture the team fees imposed. For six-year member Lila Lapanja, she recalls an average of $50,000 per year out-of-pocket in team fees and travel expenses between the years of 2011-2017. Meanwhile her teammate, Nina O’Brien, was stepping onto the D and C Team, footing the bill to chase her dreams.
O’Brien recalls the support of T2 before she even made the U.S. Ski Team, providing her the opportunity to travel to Europe throughout her development. For a FIS athlete at the time who had big goals and frankly could not make it to the top on her own, she relied on her longest-standing sponsor for the support.
“It’s a very real thing that all of us skiers are facing,” said O’Brien. “I mean, sure, everyone comes from a different background, but I think that everyone is pretty adequately aware of how expensive the sport is. Thankfully people have been there to help me and take some of that pressure off my shoulders. I think in those moments it’s a very freeing feeling to know you can just go after your dreams and give that all your attention.”
Fast forward through O’Brien’s career and the U.S. Ski Team has shifted its emphasis back to funding for athletes with the removal of team fees and “full funding” for athletes.
Then the argument shifted: If athletes are funded, now what? Define the term “funded.” Team fees are no longer the responsibility of the athlete, but there remain a few athletes that are ranked top 25 in the world with an income of roughly $18,000, according to Biesemeyer. So is $18,000 enough for our nation’s top-ranked skiers to live on?
The fundraising need
For eight-time U.S. national champion and 15th-ranked GS skier in the world, O’Brien points out she still has life expenses.
“I am 23, I am getting older, and I still have life expenses,” O’Brien expressed. “I don’t have team fees this year but I am at the point where I need to support myself and I need to be able to pay for my rent, food, gas, gym membership and insurance. All those more ‘real life’ expenses I still have.”
During her early days of travel, O’Brien would buy obscure flight patterns to cut costs. And she wasn’t the only one. Her entire team would try to use miles or incur additional layovers to cut cost. While the fundraising need has evolved, O’Brien expects to continue to rely on the network she has built throughout her journey for additional support as she climbs the World Cup ranks.
“I think there is a point maybe where you start to do really well and at that point you are making money from sponsorships, or say you were to crush it and have prize money,” said O’Brien. “Maybe that is where you make the transition from needing to fundraise to being able to support yourself. Ted Ligety, Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin, they don’t really need to fundraise, they’re doing pretty well. I would say frankly there is not a lot of money in the sport unless you are at the pinnacle, and that is why you see A team athletes still needing help.”
For those national team members on the World Cup Dreams athlete roster (14 out of 33 total athletes are U.S. Ski Team members), Biesemeyer has identified the summertime need for those individuals to live and train in Park City, the home base of the U.S. Ski Team and Center of Excellence, as a significant expense. Park City consistently ranks as Utah’s most expensive place to live, 164% higher than the national average.
Then there are athletes such as Lila Lapanja, Americans racing independently, and also identified as a 2022 Olympic contender. Lapanja is responsible for all of her costs to compete with athletes who are fully funded on the World Cup. For her to race successfully on the World Cup circuit, the expenses can be daunting: a ski technician, coach, strength and conditioning training, physical therapist, air travel, baggage fees, lodging, meals, transportation, and the list goes on. Then there are the added costs of lane fees and lift tickets, equipment, such as gates and fitness supplies.
“The annual base expense to train and prepare an athlete at the World Cup level is at least $150,000,” Lapanja shared. “Since I am not supported by the national team, I must also fill in additional gaps to garner the resources I need to stay competitive, such as finding and organizing my ski training.”
Joining Lapanja is fellow slalom national champion AJ Ginnis, former member of the U.S. Ski Team, who through dual citizenship, has just completed his first season skiing for the Greek Ski Federation. Ginnis joined the U.S. Ski Team in 2012, the same year he joined the T2 team and has received funding ever since. Throughout his tenure, Ginnis was paid team fees. Currently racing for Greece, he is still in need of additional support to compete on the World Cup.
“Even though I’m racing for Greece, I am still an American citizen,” shared Ginnis. “I am receiving funding from the Greek Federation, but it’s not enough to help support a full-time World Cup team.”
Asking for help
Skiing, training, and preparing in the off-season is a full-time commitment for athletes like O’Brien, Lapanja, and Ginnis. For O’Brien, she finds it challenging to work a job and come up with an additional source of income to pay for her out-of-pocket expenses while giving her training the time required to excel on the World Cup. In order to support her life expenses and season, it meant asking for help.
“Asking for help is hard,” said O’Brien. “Asking for financial help can feel really hard. There are people who have stepped up and really helped me but I also have had to reach out and ask a lot of people.”
Many athletes have turned to T2 and WCDF as their main source of support. Others, including O’Brien, have also reached out to individual donors for support. Each athlete has their own budget that illustrates their need. The outside resources that boost careers are justifiable expenses, according to Biesemeyer. For Lapanja, the list includes personal trainers, training equipment, and in the most recent year, additional COVID-19 tests to travel. Her financial ask has tripled after transitioning from a six-year U.S. Ski Team member to an independent.
“As an alpine World Cup racer, who currently receives no financial support from the U.S. Ski Team due to their age-based criteria, having sponsorships, partners and access to fundraising opportunities keeps my dreams alive,” expressed Lapanja. “This financial lifeline, especially at the elite World Cup level, enables me to continue racing.”
There is an argument that can be made that it’s up to the athletes to write their own story. For athletes like Biesemeyer, he was able to tell his story well. And now he says every athlete has a good story to tell. He wants WCDF to provide the platform for athletes to share their stories and to become better fundraisers while receiving tax-deductible donations.
“I think the unique thing about ski racing, no matter where they are or what level they are at, they have a good story to tell,” said Biesemeyer. “And I think that’s what people feel they are happy to give money to because they really see kids chasing their dreams, and that’s not that common in life. I think we can leverage that to get athletes the financial support to be successful.”
In an effort to streamline the ask, T2 and WCDF saw an opportunity to be better together in terms of a fundraising perspective. The two biggest organizations providing direct financial aid to athletes merged this year to amplify their reach.
Biesemeyer has questioned if there is too much fundraising, or if there is a sense of greed and athletes asking for too much. As an athlete who asked for help his entire career and now fundraises directly for WCDF Gold Team members, he knows that asking for money is hard, and by combining two organizations he believes they can help more athletes without spreading the fundraising market too thin.
Supporting the roster
“I was lucky enough to have support for both T2 and World Cup Dreams throughout my career. Through ups, downs, injuries, and wins they had my back and made it possible to focus on my goals. Without them I don’t know if I would have made it as far as I did. I am so grateful for their support and inspiration.”–Anna Marno, U.S. Ski Team alum
“WCD and T2 help me bridge the gap in my funding needs.”–AJ Ginnis, U.S. Ski Team alum, Greek World Cup racer
“I am so grateful for their support and I love all they do to help athletes at every level of the sport.”–Alice Merryweather, U.S. Ski B Team member
“World Cup Dreams Foundation provides a well-organized and professional portal for donors and patrons to support my journey via tax-deductible donations. I respect WCDF’s passionate mission and believe that no athlete should ever have to prematurely leave their sport because they could not afford to continue, regardless of age.”–Lila Lapanja, U.S. Ski Team alum, Team USA World Cup racer
“I truly don’t know if I would have been able to afford to be on the ski team. I mean it when I say it would have not been possible without them (T2, now WCDF) and for that I am immensely grateful.–Nina O’Brien, U.S. Ski Team A Team member