Ask national team ski racers what they do in the off-season, and they'll most likely tell you their sport is a full-time job. That's true, but it's also the short answer. Typically, national teams only officially take a few weeks off in the spring, tops. Nonetheless, most athletes do take up something else, either to further their education, to make some money, or simply to take their minds off racing. Summers often become dress rehearsals for racers' post-competition lives.
The type and availability of outside pursuits varies by nation. Members of the Austrian team, for instance, are high-profile celebrities in their country, and as such are booked nearly year-round with team commitments. Throughout Europe, the compulsory annual military commitment effectively becomes a part-time career for some athletes. For a few weeks every year, winter's heroes morph into customs officials, border guards and beat police men. Even Tomba served his time in the Carabinieri. Women get into civil service as well, including Germany's Martina Ertl and Italy's Karin Putzer. The gold and silver Combined medalists in this year's World Championships are policewomen in their spare time.
When not serving their country on the slopes and in the regiments, racers from the Alpine countries typically carry on with their trade or a family business. Swiss downhill star Didier Cuche is a butcher, World Downhill Champion Hannes Trinkl works the family farm on "vacations," and even Hermann Maier can go back to his bricklaying in the unlikely event that simply being Hermann Maier won't pay the bills.
Athletes from outside of central Europe, where ski racing is not a national pastime, have the ability to capture the spotlight of their entire country at least momentarily. So they tend to capitalize on their popularity more aggressively while still in their prime. Slovenian slalom heartthrob Jure Kosir moonlights as a rap singer, and his teammate Spela Pretnar is a news anchor and TV host when not winning World Cups. Even those who seem to be assured legend status know that the time to parlay a name into a business is before retirement. Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg has gold medals and a solid gold-like pop singing career. Norway's all-event marvel Lasse Kjus spends any downtime pushing Kjus Systems, his line of high-end ski clothing.
American racers face a very different set of challenges. Due to the limited interest ski racing generates in this country and the glut of high-profile athletes in other sports, opportunities for "ski celebrities" are few. Other than the occasional commentating job, American skiers have to operate on the assumption that their athletic career will have little to do with their future livelihood, since a World Cup win barely rates mention in the daily sports section. Military and farming careers are not popular options, and the national team does not exactly encourage higher education, which makes preparing for a career while ski racing nearly impossible. On the flip side, however, is the ever-present reality of the American dream. American business culture offers more opportunity and reward to anyone with ambition than any place in the world.
So the mentality for American skiers is to be always on the lookout for opportunity. The Internet has greatly helped that aim by allowing athletes to stay connected to home even while on the road. It has also facilitated the online stock trading fever that first caught the team at a summer camp two years ago. Thomas Vonn, Paul Casey Puckett, Dane Spencer and Drew Thorne-Thomsen were the most manic day traders, or as Thorne-Thomsen describes his group now, "the compulsive losers." At training camps these members of the tight-knit technical team would come off the hill and immediately log on.
"Every night at dinner, all conversations were about the market-investment philosophies, hot stock tips, up-and-coming companies," recalls downhiller Ehlias Louis. "At one point I remember thinking, 'cann't we just talk about football or something?'"
Louis himself takes a conservative approach with his investments. "I sort of got a hard time because I'm happy with a 10 percent return and totally psyched with 30. They were looking for the $1 stock that would go to $60. It was exciting to hear about their gains, but also sort of a bummer to not be making them." Was it distracting? "Not when we were doing well," said Thorne-Thomsen. "We don't do anything else but ski, and don't make much money, so it was really motivating."
At one point the most aggressive traders of the group were making $20,000 per day and at the high point their portfolios were up 400 percent. When the tech stocks tanked last year, the excitement came to a screeching halt, and the profits evaporated. "We all learned a ton and we're able to joke about it now," says Thorne-Thomsen. Any chance he'll go into trading as a career? "I doubt it," he says. "The way we were doing it was more like gambling than a career."
Ironically, perhaps the best job training available to U.S. Ski Team athletes these days is in the investment field, thanks to a relationship with Charles Schwab Inc. For the past three years Schwab has been offering paid internships to U.S. Ski Team athletes, and hefty bonuses (up to $10,000 by 2002) to athletes who complete the entire nine-week internship.
The opportunity has allowed some athletes not only to pursue a business career, but also to endure the inevitable valleys of a sports career. Jason Rosener is a promising downhiller who has been plagued by severe back problems for the past three seasons. He was among the first to participate in the internship program, moved on to get his broker's license and is now a full-time investment specialist at Schwab. With his back on the mend, he has traded back the desk job for his athletic career. After ski season, he'll get back to the office to help out with tax season. "It's been great for me. With my injury I was a lost soul. Now I know I'll always have a job no matter what happens with skiing."