Some Olympic sports athletes live in a world of certainty. They know they’ll make the team. They have steady incomes within their sports, with ample access to any resources they need to compete. The following four athletes don’t dwell in that world. They have a delicate balance of work and sports in their quest to earn a trip to the Olympics that is far from guaranteed.
Pitts’ pursuit of an Olympic track and field berth has been made possible in part by a surprising activity.
No, the 5ft 8in triple jumper from Louisiana State University hasn’t changed sports to try something that isn’t on the Olympic radar. She has just trained a couple of rodeo athletes, all part of the employment scramble that has kept her going in the sport more than five years after graduation.
“Their main thing was getting off the horse and running to the calf,” Pitts said of her rodeo clients. “You have to think outside the box. We don’t have a horse we can train on all the time.”
Pitts is employable, having graduated from LSU in 2014 with a degree in kinesiology and a minor in psychology. She has trained athletes, not just in rodeo, who have a need for speed. She also has worked as a personal trainer in a retirement community and as a career counselor in middle schools.
And she has been the bearer of bad news for a few people.
“Being a career coach, I’ve had to crush a lot of dreams,” Pitts said. “Sometimes, unfortunately, I talk people out of being a professional track and field athlete.”
Pitts isn’t being mean. Just realistic. She knows how tough it can be to stay in the sport without top-tier USA Track and Field funding, big-time sponsorship or the prize money offered at the world’s best meets.
But she’s able to keep expenses down most of the time. She’s able to use the facilities at her alma mater, where she works with Boo Schexnayder, one of the coaches in the powerhouse LSU program.
She also doesn’t travel much for competition. LSU hosts a couple of meets each year, including an indoor meet that usually kicks off her competitive year in January. (She tends to win.)
For national championships, she can qualify for “pre-allocation” money if she gets the right results beforehand. For other meets beyond Baton Rouge, LSU’s home city, she usually pays her own way.
Medical bills are also a challenge. She has phased off her parents’ insurance and gets Medicaid, but she had to pay a lot out of pocket to have ankle surgery to deal with bone spurs.
Given all these obstacles, she has had the passing thought of taking her own career advice and choosing another path, especially when she balanced training with a job that kept her on her feet all day.
“Boo even asked me, ‘How are you doing this physically?’” Pitts said. “I was working 32 hours a week and doing track and field. I was just coming back off surgery. I was frustrated with my marks.”
Still, she has made some national teams, thanks to a series of fourth-place finishes in the US championships. She hasn’t been to the Olympics or world championships, but she has competed in the NACAC (North America, Central America and Caribbean) championships a couple of times. She took third in the 2015 NACAC meet with an official personal best of 13.83 meters and a wind-aided mark of 14.02.
With her fourth-place finish in the US championships last year, she earned a spot in The Match, a Ryder Cup-style competition between the USA and Europe.
“We went to Belarus,” she said. “It was really fun. It got pretty competitive in the end because Europe started pulling away. I was able to end my season on a seasonal best.”
Now she’s looking toward the Olympics and next year’s worlds.
“(The Match) gave me that kick in the butt, like, this isn’t it. You have to get on your horse.”
Just like her training clients.
The bad news for this year is that USA Climbing only gets two berths per gender in the 2020 Olympics, and the women’s berths are taken.
The good news is that she has plenty of time to get to the Games down the road. She’s a 19-year-old student at the University of Colorado.
She didn’t have to leave home to go to school. She and her family moved to Boulder, the city with the most appropriate name for a climber and a strong youth team in Team ABC, when she was young.
“I moved to Colorado right before I started high school,” Grossman said. “There’s a lot of (climbing) gyms here. There’s one here every 10 minutes.”
That’s a shorter commute than she faced growing up in Santa Cruz, California, where she sometimes had a two-hour trip. Getting back and forth between a gym and college quickly is important for someone balancing an elite climbing career with a couple of psychology courses, biology, ethics and philosophy.
“I have class every day, so I normally get out around 2.30ish,” Grossman said. “Once I’m done, I’ll normally study for a little bit. Then I’ll go to the gym after that, normally around 4, and I’ll be there for around 3 hours. Then I go back to school to 7.”
Her three-hour workouts include some sort of conditioning – abs, arms or legs, depending on the day – and she bikes around campus for extra cardio work. But the bulk of her training is climbing, climbing and more climbing. Her gym sets new climbs on its walls twice a week, and she can dial up thousands of different climbs through the Moonboard, a wall that lets climbers pick their own routes through the multitude of holds.
“I go to the gym and have a plan,” she said. “That way I can stick with it and be efficient and not just play around and go, ‘Oh, it’s been two hours.’”
Weekends are spent on even longer workouts or competitions, which usually force her to miss Friday classes. She only goes to overseas competitions in the summer.
So in general, she has the time-management capability to train and study. What she doesn’t have is financial support beyond the occasional bit of free equipment or prize money – perhaps $1,500 for a first-place finish somewhere.
“I have to pay for everything – my gym membership, flights to competition, hotels,” she said. “I’m trying to get a shoe sponsorship.”
She’s unlikely to follow the Alex Honnold path and have a camera crew record something like Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary tracing Honnold’s daring ascent up El Capitan.
“Competition is my main focus,” she said.
Imagine juggling a job with a sport.
Now imagine juggling a job with five sports.
That’s the life of Sam Ruddock, an Olympic modern pentathlon hopeful who lives, works and trains in a city where you’d expect to find more actors than athletes.
New York? Not Colorado Springs or one of the other hotbeds of Olympic sports training in the USA? Not someplace cheaper?
“The way points are skewed, it’s become more and more skewed toward fencing and the run-and-shoot,” Ruddock said. “If you look at Olympic champions, the winners all won the fence. The best fencing in the country is in New York.”
But Ruddock has to do more than fence. He has to swim, run, shoot and ride – a horse, not the subway.
So Ruddock’s typical day may start around 6 or 7am in the pool at the New York Athletic Club. After he swims and stretches, he heads to work. After work, it’s time to run and lift weights. By 6pm or so, he’s fencing. That’s not every day, but he generally swims five to six times a week and fences three to five times.
Riding is a bit tougher. New Yorkers can’t just hop on a horse and head to Central Park. Instead, he takes the occasional weekend at a friend’s house north of the city.
The shooting aspect of the run-and-shoot is also a little tricky, but he can get a little bit of practice in the comfort of his own apartment, from one end of his bedroom to the fridge, or down a long hallway in a relative’s house. Fortunately, the shooting competition was revised several years ago so that athletes use electronic “guns” rather than bullets, so he’s not putting a few holes in the wall, Pulp Fiction-style.
And about once a week, Ruddock heads to a track with his laser gun, a target and a bunch of duct tape, allowing him to mimic the pentathlon’s mix of running and shooting.
When he’s not shooting, riding, swimming, running or fencing, Ruddock can be found putting his economics degree to work.
“I work at a small consulting firm,” Ruddock said. “We’re an incubator, essentially. We help start-ups scale quickly. I work mostly on the fund-raising side. For me, it’s kind of like a dream job. The guy started the business about a year ago. He’s fairly flexible with my training. I can go in and out as I please, almost. It keeps me intellectually stimulated as well.”
In case all that’s not enough, he recently started playing squash, which gives him a break from the more solitary pursuits of pentathlon.
“It’s tough socially because all I do is work and train mostly,” Ruddock said. “Most social life revolves around bars and drinking and staying out late, and I can’t really do that.”
Ruddock is a second-generation pentathlete who first competed in his teens. He’ll be 27 this summer, and this may be his last attempt to reach the Olympics.
But after 2020, you may still find him in a pool in New York – or perhaps a squash court, tennis court or golf course.
“To take a day without working out would be odd for me,” Ruddock said.
In a Colorado gym last summer, some NFL players were put into a training group along with other athletes. Among them was a 33-year-old Colorado native who had just moved in with his girlfriend and worked at a start-up.
This group of men who make a living in a sport filled with violent collisions were stunned to learn what their training partner does in the colder months.
“They all think I’m crazy,” said Stephen Garbett, who competes in the head-first sledding sport of skeleton. “They’re all like, ‘What do you do?’”
A decade ago, Garbett didn’t know much about the sport himself. But then came a life-altering experience. On a trip home from Beverly Hills, where he was managing a gym, he started to feel ill. He wound up in the hospital for more than three weeks, with appendicitis just part of the problem.
“It showed me how precious life was,” Garbett said. “Since then, I’ve set high goals for myself.”
One goal was straightforward – he would go to college aged 24 and become the first person in his family to earn a degree. The other goal had to do with what was on TV during his hospital stay – the 2010 Olympics. Skeleton was the sport that caught his attention.
Off he went to the University of South Carolina, notably not near one of the USA’s two sliding tracks but home to some business programs that appealed to him. He got his degree in sports and entertainment management, then headed for the hills to take part in a combine for prospective sliders.
“They’re normally looking for college athletes,” he said. “I was 27. I was the oldest age that they allow incoming athletes.”
When it was done, he became one of the handful of Americans who compete in skeleton. His status as an international competitor gets him free ice time at Lake Placid or Utah Olympic Park, but it doesn’t give him a steady income. Nor does it pay for his summer training with NFL players and other athletes. Or his travel.
Good thing he did the college part first.
“That (education) has helped me understand gaining sponsorship,” Garbett said. “You have to understand how to negotiate.”
His personal sponsors, USA Bobsled and Skeleton’s team sponsors, and a summer golf tournament help him generate the money he needs to stay on the ice. So does a novel job with a start-up called Hotel Carbon, which is opening hotels that cater to athletes – including esports stages and viewing areas, Garbett’s department within the company.
His offseasons are important. Not only is he able to train, work and be with his girlfriend, but he’s also able to get outdoors and away from the ice for a few months. All of that keeps him from burning out while making a run at being one of the older members of the US team headed for Beijing in 2022, when he would be 36 years old.
“In high-level sports, there’s a ton of pressure from the sport, and financially there’s a huge burden,” Garbett said. “When you don’t have an escape, you’re not able to perform as well as you could.”