Last year, while Shaun White was raking in more than $3 million in endorsement deals, Justin Reiter was living out of a Toyota Tundra he'd named "Grayson Steele." And those were salad days for Reiter, who had previously supported his alpine snowboarding career by working as a pizza cook, a golf pro, and a Home Depot store assistant. He had been granted access to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's Center of Excellence in Park City and was competing for the one slalom spot he knew would be open on Team USA. Given that privations were guaranteed and success was not, chasing his dream was still a bad bet, but this was his one shot.
"I wouldn't say there's any resentment," Reiter says of his struggles, which are the product of the U.S. not offering state funding for athletes and his sport's relative obscurity. "Those guys from Austria, Switzerland, or Russia have everything: doctors, physios, techs. So there is an element of me being like David taking on Goliath. But what is achievement without adversity?"
American athletes have long avoided economic adversity by teaming up with major corporations. But this reliance on sponsors is a double-edged sword for many Olympians. For every freeskier supported by GoPro, Red Bull, and the X Games, there is a luger or short-track speed skater trying to scrape by or working a day job. But Reiter and his American competitors probably have less support and less statistical chance of success than any other group of Olympians. The USA Snowboard and Freeski Association doesn't finance alpine snowboarding, and there is only one position available for men.
It's no wonder that there is a certain amount of esprit de core among the racers, who trade stories of struggles and refer to themselves as "blue-collar athletes." They compete ferociously, but only part-time.
"I'm pretty much just living out of three bags all the time," says Mike Trapp, a 25-year-old mountain bro from Hyannis, Massachusetts, who moonlights as a Mercedes mechanic and counts the British Beer Company, a Cape Code brewpub, among his sponsors. "I'm doing this all on my own dime."
The expenses are not inconsiderable. Converse Fields, a 24-year-old native of Northampton, Massachusetts, says that after driving across the country to Steamboat Springs and buying a ski pass, he found himself sleeping on the floor behind a friend's couch. In order to keep competing, Fields worked six shifts a week at a local restaurant and running a tubing hill. He eventually debuted at an FIS World Cup meet in Europe, but he didn’t find a sponsor there either. Companies generally look for teams, not individuals.
"I don't have the big team or coaches to push me," says Fields. "You really have to want it yourself. All my motivation comes from within."
But motivation isn't enough to make it to the games. You have to win. Reiter did just that on the FIS World Cup tour and is now Sochi bound. Trapp and Fields will watch the games on TV while figuring out how to avoid early retirement. Both are looking toward 2018 and South Korea, but it is probably going to be a long four years.
"I guess it makes you harder," says Fields.
Reiter knows that all too well. Unlike the celebrity athletes heading to Sochi with expectations in tow, he is largely unknown. If he doesn't win slalom or giant slalom, he'll have to face himself, the decisions he's made, and the hardworking men he beat out for the opportunity. But – like the underdog he is – Reiter chooses not to think like that.
"It's for the sensation," he says. "That's why we do this. That's why we snowboard."