Personal finance advice from the lives of Adam Rippon, Mirai Nagasu, and other U.S. Olympic team members

3 lessons for millennials from the financial lives of U.S. Olympians (and one thing not to do)

Adam Rippon



“Six years ago, I had no money to my name. I was living in my coach’s basement. I [had] just leased a car and I got a letter in the mail saying that my credit was so bad that they needed to take the car back. My coach co-signed on the lease so that I could keep the car and he said, ‘I trust you. And I trust that you’re going to work hard.’”

 

—Adam Rippon, U.S. Olympic figure skater, speaking to CNBC

Adam Rippon can land a triple axel on a worldwide stage, and he’s inspired millions watching the Pyeongchang Winter Games as the first openly gay U.S. Olympic figure skater. But as he confessed to CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin this week, in other ways his life isn’t so different from that of many other American millennials. For one: He’s battled financial fragility while trying to achieve his dream. And yes, he had to live in a basement. (How millennial is that?)

Rippon’s money struggles don’t set him apart on this year’s Olympic team. Throughout history, U.S. Olympians have scraped, scrimped, and side-hustled their way to the top—in a system that can be stacked against the majority of athletes without lucrative sponsorship deals. Here are some financial lessons we can all learn from our contenders in Pyeongchang—and one head-scratcher.

1. From basement life to blades of glory

Rippon’s arrangement with his coach, who helped him out with his car lease in addition to giving him a place to stay, isn’t something to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that he would have made it to this year’s competition without such generosity. If you’re couch-surfing with the parents, make a financial roadmap to get you out the door and into your own place. And if you receive financial help from a friend or family member, just remember to have a plan, in writing, for how to pay them back—whether that means a formal loan agreement, or a promise to contribute in some way to your household or another shared enterprise. (Like becoming the Prince of the Olympics.)

2. Every day I’m hustlin’

Women’s ice hockey goalie Alex Rigsby sells shoes at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Bobsledder Chris Kinney does social media for an industrial building corporation. And Mirai Nagasu, who just became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics, was an “ice girl” for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche. (Sort of a cross between a human Zamboni and a cheerleader.)

Millennial Olympians epitomize the #SideHustle generation…because they have to. (Just like normal millennials.) Some athletes who qualify for the Games earn short-term stipends from the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the Lindsey Vonns and Shaun Whites of the world pile up slick sponsorship packages. But that leaves a lot of athletes scrambling to make ends meet, all while balancing intensive practice schedules and, often, onerous training costs. So it’s no wonder Olympians are digging into their other skill sets to keep the cash flowing.

For us ordinary mortals, taking on a side hustle might be a chance to explore a passion you don’t get to in your day job. It might even be the beginning of a new chapter of self-employment. 

3. Points for creativity

Getting to the Games can inspire superhuman resourcefulness in athletes and their communities. Just as they did for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro , this year athletes from around the world crowdfunded to cover expenses. But I was a fan of biathlete Susan Dunklee’s unorthodox approach to raising money, in a less-glamorous sport where U.S. team members have struggled to find funding.

In a televised competition leading up to the Olympics, Dunklee placed a “YOUR AD HERE” sticker on her rifle. The cheeky move earned her endorsements from various European companies. (Biathlon: It’s a bigger deal in Europe.) It’s as good a reminder as any that selling yourself is key to making your next career move, whether you’re facing a layoff or negotiating a better salary. Striking the right balance of smart, savvy, and a little shameless will help you get your shot.

And…going your own way

Whether deserved or not, one of the most viral stories to come out of this year’s Games has been the tale of underwhelming, underqualified freestyle skier Elizabeth Swaney. Swaney’s long road to representing Hungary in the Olympics (some might say “long con”) started with attempts at figure skating and skeleton. When those failed, the tech company recruiter from California, who didn’t take up skiing until age 25, hit the slopes. She entered herself in World Cup events—eventually representing Hungary (using her maternal grandparents’ nationality)—strategically picking those where the field of competitors was small enough for her to eke out Olympic qualification.

Though her ski style is (ahem) cautious at best, Swaney qualified for the Olympics simply by showing up and not falling down. In a way, this makes Swaney’s story an inspirational one. And in the world of personal finance, sticking to your goals, making low-risk investments, and pulling a multi-job hustle (like Swaney did to finance her Olympic dream) really do pay off.

But in an event devoted to exceptionalism, mediocrity—the state in which most of us muddle through life—is going to make you stand out. And while mildly overselling yourself on the job search can help you get to the next level in your career, flat-out lying about your abilities is going to confuse and frustrate your new colleagues. Or, you know, the freestyle skiing community and the entire international Olympic audience.

But hey, at least Swaney has a cool new LinkedIn profile picture.

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