Rower Megan Kalmoe is an Olympic medalist -- and she lives just above the poverty line
As she's done every night for a week, Megan Kalmoe sits at her living room table staring at the Zappos website. There on the screen of her 2009 MacBook Pro is a pair of the Brooks Ghost 6. Yellow and white. Size 10.5. List price: $110. Her New Balances have served her well, but now they have worn treads and holes. There's no question that she deserves the Brooks. Needs them. With a click, she places the new running shoes into her shopping cart.
But within seconds, questions fire through her head, each one louder than the next. Do I have anything left in my bank account for these? Have I maxed out all of my credit cards? How am I going to pay rent this month? She trembles. Tears fall from her eyes. "What am I doing with my life?"
The reason behind her panic is no riddle. No secret. Kalmoe is broke and afraid because she is a United States Olympic athlete. But not just any Olympic athlete. She isn't some newbie. She's a veteran elite of the U.S. women's national rowing team who's earned a pair of World Championship silver medals ('11, '14) and gold in 2015, a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, and U.S Rowing's Female Athlete of the Year honors in 2014 and 2015. And in April 2014, those years of hard work and medals and accolades are earning her exactly $800 per month. Before taxes. "I'm one of the best athletes in the country," says Kalmoe, who will know on June 20 whether she has made a boat for the 2016 Rio Games (Aug.5-21). "And I can't sleep when I have to buy new running shoes."
She is not alone. For every Ryan Lochte and Bode Miller, there are 50 Kalmoes, athletes who spend as much time worrying about car payments and electric bills as winning gold medals. "Is it a surprise? Absolutely," says Nathan Crumpton, who, as an Olympic development athlete (skeleton), served on the USOC's Athletes' Advisory Council on revenue allocation. "There are many athletes fighting to stay above the poverty line."
Kalmoe, who primarily races the quadruple sculls (or four-person boat), takes a deep breath and gathers herself. She has neither the time nor the desire to wallow. Anyway, it's almost 8:30 p.m. Bedtime. Tomorrow morning her alarm will ring at 5:15 for the first of three practices. So, as she's done every night this past week, she removes the Brooks Ghost 6 from her shopping cart and turns off her computer.
It is a balmy afternoon in Monmouth Junction, N.J., a pleasant middle-class suburban town of almost 3,000, distinct only for its lack of distinctiveness. Kalmoe lives here because of the proximity to both the Princeton University boathouse and the US Rowing team training facility at Mercer Lake, the two facilities where the national team splits its training time.
Down a quiet street off of Route 1, Kalmoe emerges from her white two-family house. Her shorts and tank top show off a typical rower's physique -- all legs and back -- while her body ink and nose piercing hint at a more free-spirited side. "This is where I have my garden," she explains, walking toward a 10-by-20-foot plot on the lawn. Here she grows strawberries, kale, cherry tomatoes, chard, peanuts, onions and cucumbers. It's not much, she explains, but it's organic and it's cheap, both of which make a difference to someone consuming close to 6,000 calories a day.
Kalmoe maintains a bare-bones existence. She rents her three-bedroom pad for $1,000 a month, which she splits with a teammate. "An amazing deal for this area," says Kalmoe, explaining that the homeowner's son-in-law is a former national team oarsman. She rarely eats out. Her cellphone is on her parents' plan. Weddings, vacations and nonessential shopping are distant memories. If her family wishes to see her over the holidays, they know they must spring for her ticket back home to Minnesota. As for Christmas presents? "I get fancy," jokes Kalmoe. "Target gift cards and new socks."
She doesn't mind scraping by. Doesn't shirk from sacrifice. But it's the unexpected costs that send her into a panic. Like the $3,200 IRS bill she hadn't planned on (her parents bailed her out). Or the morning she was driving Li'l Red, her 1999 Ford Ranger, up the turnpike to a rowing clinic and the transmission blew out (thankfully she found a mechanic who accepted monthly payments). Or the fall of 2008 when she'd returned from the Beijing Olympics only to be told that the US Rowing budget had been used up and monthly stipends for the rest of the year would be $0 (she luckily found a part-time, front-desk job at the YMCA).
Li'l Red fires up easily and Kalmoe drives eight minutes to downtown Princeton for lunch. The sun shines. A breeze cuts the humidity. Princeton, so pastoral it looks as if it should be under a snow globe, bustles with Saturday afternoon traffic of both the foot and four-wheeled varieties. As she searches for parking, Kalmoe makes certain she's not misunderstood. "I'm not complaining," says the 5-foot-10 Kalmoe. "I love being an Olympic athlete."
She and teammates Grace Latz, Amanda Polk and Katelin Snyder convene at Olives, a fancy sandwich-entrée takeout joint. Containers of buffalo macaroni-and-cheese and Thai chicken salad in hand, they head across the street and find a table in the shade of the public library. Each athlete more Amazonian than the next (except for coxswain Katelin), they all brim with smarts, charm and the self-possession of elite athletes. The banter soon turns to their finances. Despite the sometimes dire circumstances, the rowers don't speak with heavy voices but laughter as they are all - well-aware of the irony -- in the same boat.
"I slept in my car during training camp," says Latz.
"I'm applying for state-funded, low-income housing in the winter," admits Snyder. "Trust me, there's no pride involved."
"It's never not a source of anxiety," explains Polk, her teammates nodding in unison. "And I can't think of anyone on the US Rowing team who didn't worry about money. Maybe the Winklevoss twins."
The USOC is the world's only Olympic governing body in a major country that's not funded by the government. Broadcasting deals, sponsors and donors account for the entirety of its expense budget that, during the 2009-2012 Olympic cycle, amounted to $795 million. A big number? Sure. Yet only $81 million -- a hair over 10 percent -- was allocated for direct athlete support (DAS), monthly stipends put directly into athlete's pockets. That $81 million is then split among 39 national governing bodies of Olympic sports, including USA Track & Field, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, and US Rowing.
To further see how the pie gets divvied up, look at US Rowing. In 2014, the USOC gave US Rowing $400,000 in DAS (the number was based on a variety of factors such as past performance and potential for future medals). US Rowing administrators then divvied that cash up among 40 or so rowers (men and women) based on criteria such as camp performance, trials and medals. That's an average of $10,000 per year or $833 a month. "Teams like Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia are federally funded," says Curtis Jordan, US Rowing's director of high performance. "I know we can't compete with that. We're just trying to do enough to keep them in the sport."
But isn't rowing a snooze? Doesn't it draw a TV audience somewhere between horseshoes and Ultimate Frisbee? Maybe. But the funding shortcomings aren't about popularity. They're ubiquitous. Speedskater Emily Scott applied for food stamps. At one point, heavyweight power lifter Sarah Robles was planning to live in a tent in her neighbor's backyard and pay $50 to use the shower. Gymnast Gabby Douglas' mother filed for bankruptcy. A 2012 study of USA Track & Field athletes (one of the only studies on Olympic athlete finances) estimated that 50 percent of the athletes who rank in the top 10 of all track and field disciplines make less (from stipends and sponsors) than $15,000 a year. Outside of the top 10? Barely enough to buy a pair of Brooks Ghost 6 running shoes.
I'm [in my thirties], I live in a dorm at an Olympic training center... It's kind of scary. I know dozens of gold medalists trying to make ends meet.Olympic bobsledder Steven Holcomb, 19-year national team vet
Winning can help pay bills. Olympic medals mean bonuses of $25,000 (gold), $15,000 (silver) and $10,000 (bronze), while World Championship podiums in non-Olympic years are $5,000, $4,000 and $3,500, respectively. It's no secret that stars in high-profile sports like swimming and sprinting can pull in six- or even seven-figure sponsorship deals. But the chances of landing a lucrative Speedo or Nike contract are slim (in rowing, the chances are none as sponsorship is all but unheard of), and while the medals certainly have cachet, all cash prizes (medal bonuses) get taxed by Uncle Sam. "I'm [in my 30s], I live in a dorm at an Olympic training center, every penny I get goes to my sport," says bobsledder Steven Holcomb, a 19-year national team vet who has won one gold medal and two bronze and is a five-time world champion. "It's kind of scary. I know dozens of gold medalists trying to make ends meet."
As the ladies polish off their lunches, the discussion of money and finances and earning inspires a little math problem. They estimate that they train about 36 hours a week (transportation, recovery, lifting, rowing, etc.). Kalmoe gets out her iPhone calculator and multiplies that number by four, divides $833 (the average monthly stipend) by 144 hours (the four-week total) and grins. "Basically we're making $5.78 an hour."
Not everyone, however, sympathizes.
"I'm so bored with stories about these middle-class white kids complaining about sacrifices they're making to go to the Olympics," says Mike Teti, the men's rowing coach at the University of California Berkeley and a national team oarsman from 1977 to 1994. "I can point to 35 to 40 medalists I know who worked full-time their whole Olympic career."
Teti is one of those medalists. The Philly native spent a decade hocking insurance for Equitable Life, then another eight years coaching the Princeton freshman -- all while training full time. "In 1992 my stipend was $400, and I gave it away to someone else," he says. "In our sport, the athletes are all college-educated and relatively bright. A guy who just graduated would be on a stipend until he found a job."
Teti, while known for speaking his mind, isn't talking out of turn. After his Princeton job, he helmed the U.S. national team from 1997 to 2008. He has coached hundreds of rowers. Even the most gifted had gigs. "[Chris] Ahrens would row in the morning, then get on a train to New York City," says Teti of the five-time gold medalist. "He'd catch the 5:10 Amtrak back and row at Princeton at 6:30. He qualified for a stipend but didn't take it. He said, 'I'm not rowing for money; I'm rowing for medals.'"
Circumstances changed, however. Over the past 12 years, the quest for Olympic medals, particularly with the emergence of China, has reached a fever pitch. "Teams like the Russians and Chinese are fully funded and essentially pros," says Joe Micela, who coached Robles, the U.S. power lifter. "Yet somehow we're expected to compete with them and get results." To beat teams that are essentially pros, American athletes would also have to train like pros. No one understood this more than U.S. women's rowing coach Tom Terhaar. Prior to the national team, he worked alongside former East German and Russian coaches. When the Buffalo native took over the women's coaching job in 2001, he immediately jacked up the workload. Two, sometimes three, daily training sessions. A thousand minutes per week on the water. "The rowers could have a full-time job if they wanted," explains Terhaar. "But I'd never had anyone do it and make the team." The new program paid off. Since 2006, the U.S. women's eight boat has won gold at 10 consecutive world or Olympic championships, including the past two Olympics.
With the increase in training, however, holding down even a part-time job is tough. One reason: recovery. More exercise means the need for more rest. "The value of recovery has increased significantly over the past 10 years," says Mark McKown, director of sports science and assistant coach for the Utah Jazz. "Just look at the 2014 NBA champion Spurs. For the first time in history, all of their players averaged under 30 minutes a game." Even manning a hotel front desk or delivering pizzas or babysitting -- jobs that seem easy -- can be draining for elite athletes. There's also the issue of scheduling. Judo hopeful Josh Brown has a nearly nonstop schedule of weekend tournaments. Bobsledder Holcomb spends four to five months a year in Europe. The entire U.S. rowing team relocates to Chula Vista, Calif., each winter. "It's pretty simple," says speedskater Scott. "People who have jobs don't make the team."
The dilemma has not fallen on deaf ears. Last year, Dick's Sporting Goods, an Olympic sponsor, started a jobs program for Olympic hopefuls (athletes must qualify through the USOC and have a high potential to qualify for the Games). "We know how hard it is for aspiring Olympic athletes to finance their dreams," says Ryan Eckel, vice president of brand marketing at Dick's Sporting Goods. The program reportedly pays athletes $20 per hour to work at various Dick's stores and features extremely flexible hours. "I can't say enough about the program," says hurdler Candice Price. "I can buy the quality food that helps me perform. I can say I need next weekend off but need extra hours the following week. People have to understand that peace of mind is just as important as how hard you train."
It's a little past dawn on an unseasonably warm morning at Mercer Lake. Mist falls from the low clouds. Trees cling to the last of their foliage. On the dock of the US Rowing Center, 17 oarsmen from the U.S. women's team, dressed in leggings, shorts, baseball hats and pullovers, gather around coach Terhaar. "Concentrate on the stroke today," he tells them of their impending 20-kilometer workout. "Put pressure on the back and push through. Low intensity. Steady."
Kalmoe nods. Although she wears a hardened game face, she has, over the past year, found peace of mind. Last fall, based on her 2014 performance, she got a raise from US Rowing. Her monthly stipend went from $800 to $1,600. Not a big number for most people, but for someone whose monthly income was below the 2015 national poverty level ($11,770), the bump was like hitting the Powerball. "I feel like I'm rolling in dough," gushes Kalmoe. "For most of my 10 years, the top performers made $1,000. Now it's $1,600? Amazing! It's actually mind-blowing!"
This is not to say Kalmoe hit Saks Fifth Avenue or bought herself an Audi. She still drives Li'l Red. She still lives in the same house. Although she was tempted to buy a new MacBook Pro when hers started slowing down, she bought a $70 memory chip instead (it worked). Yet last summer, she was able to go to teammate Esther Lofgren's wedding in Cape Cod. She doesn't have to buy the off-brand (and often inferior) groceries. In late October, she paid off her second credit card. "I'm happy to say I'm officially out of debt." And in the boathouse locker room, one can find her new Ghost 7 sneakers. This time she bought the pink ones.
What has changed dramatically is Kalmoe's anxiety. It's gone. It abated, she says, the minute she deposited her first check. And every day she sees the difference. "It doesn't hit me in the middle of training," she says. "It sounds stupid, but training is long, and if you only thought about rowing, you'd go insane. So if you're stressing about bills or debt or how many groceries you can afford, it's going to pop into your head."
While she clearly feels better, it begs the question: Does a bigger paycheck make a better athlete? According to Kalmoe, perhaps it does. Her best two performances in recent years came after her raise. "I think there's a natural correlation to security," she says. "The money allows you to do what you have to do at the highest level. You can focus all of your energies on training and performance instead of all the negative stuff."
Yet as an Olympian Kalmoe knows she can't get too comfortable. "This next upcoming quarter hopefully will be the same stipend, but Q2 is open to interpretation," she says with a shrug and a smile. "Finances can always change."