When A Little Support Goes A Long Way
At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Jett Seymour was focusing on giant slalom and trying to get up to speed. Seymour started the NorAm season alongside many of the country’s top athletes in Panorama. He finished outside the top 20 in all seven races and didn’t garner much attention. That changed quickly.
After Panorama, Seymour returned home to Steamboat Springs, Colo., to race in the Holiday Classic, a set of night slaloms held under the lights at Howelsen Hill. Seymour finished between fourth and eighth, in between several elite collegiate athletes.
“I was actually skiing GS my strongest at the first NorAms in Pano, and after that I started skiing slalom a little bit better. Everything just kind of clicked at the Holiday Classic,” Seymour said.
To start the New Year, Seymour traveled east to Stowe. His coach, Ryan Wilson, saw how fast he was skiing and told him that he really needed to “go for it” in the slalom. It didn’t help that rain and poor visibility shook up the Stowe NorAm schedule, forcing both slaloms into a single day that Seymour would start with bib 59. “Here we go, it’s going to be bumpy back here where I’m running,” he thought at the time.
Seymour moved from 59 into fourth place in the first race. With that finish, he moved his bib up to start with 12 in the second race. Without the ruts to contend with, Seymour took home his maiden NorAm victory.
“It was a perfect two races in one day,” Seymour said.
At 18 years old, Seymour had catapulted himself into the spotlight as one of the most promising junior athletes in the United States. The World Junior Championships in Are, Sweden, along with U.S. Nationals in Maine were quickly added to his schedule after the Stowe series. His future looked more than promising, but there was one major issue. How could his family afford all this unexpected travel?
Seymour has two younger brothers who also ski race and compete at a high level. One of them raced against Jett at U.S. Nationals and the other competed in U.S. Junior Nationals. In order for the three Seymour siblings to ski to their highest potential, the family was going to need financial assistance.
The T2 Foundation stepped in to provide that help.
The T2 Foundation was officially stated in 2008, but its founder, Tom Karam, was an influential member of the alpine community long before that. Prior to T2, Karam privately funded a few U.S. Ski Team athletes, notably Ted Ligety and Hannah Kearney. In 2008, with increased fees imposed on national team athletes, Karam decided to turn “Team Tommy”, as his personal project was called, into a nonprofit organization. Today, that nonprofit has the dual key missions of supporting athletes while giving back to the youth community.
“At that time it was a relatively small and simple program,” T2 Executive Director Marina Knight says. “I think we gave out about $80,000 in grants.”
T2 determines which athletes to fund based on the three factors of financial need, merit, and character. Its junior program is weighted heavily toward an athlete’s and family’s finances. Knight says that T2 wants to ensure that promising young athletes are not giving up the sport simply because they are priced out of involvement.
“Cost is obviously such a barrier, and we want to eliminate that as a reason to consider another sport,” Knight remarks.
These days, T2 gives out $250,000 annually with $150,00 allotted to the junior grant program and the rest for bigger-name athletes who are on the national team or are highly competitive independent athletes, like Robby Kelley.
Last season, T2 also pitched in $1,000 for each athlete traveling to Are, Sweden, to compete in the World Junior Championships. Next season, Knight hopes the foundation will cover all of the travel expenses for U.S. athletes competing in the event.
Coincidentally, the organization started a contingency fund last year to account for cases where athletes in need arose in the middle of the season.
In late February, Wilson suggested that Seymour reach out to T2 to see if it could help in some way. Seymour was already offered the $1,000 grant for World Juniors travel, but the foundation was able to extend an additional $7,500 from the contingency fund.
“I think I would have been able to [go to World Juniors], but I don’t know if my brother would have been able to do U.S. Nationals and stuff like that because of all of the money, if travel was going to me for World Juniors,” Seymour reflects. “Having three of us ski race puts a huge strain on our financials,” he adds.
For the 2017-18 season, Seymour was named to the U.S. C-Team. It’s a great honor that also comes with a hefty price tag. Seymour has to pay approximately $14,000 to participate, and that is lower than most of his teammates. He decided to enroll in the University of Denver and compete for the Pioneers simultaneously, so costs will be lower due to his classroom requirements during some of C-Team camps and Denver covering his travel to NorAms.
T2 hasn’t named its supported athletes for the 2017-18 season just yet, but Seymour is patiently awaiting word with the hope he makes the list.
“We’re waiting, hopefully, to get T2 and if that doesn’t come through then we’re not totally sure yet,” Seymour notes.
Drew Duffy, a 22-year-old national team skier, can relate to Seymour’s challenges. In 2014, Duffy was named to the development team alongside his brother Danny. Danny has since moved on to St. Michaels College and skis for the Purple Knights.
“The tricky part was that Danny and I made it the same year. So it was times two on everything,” Duffy remarks. The Duffys launched a Rally Me crowdfunding campaign that raised $52,601. He said that his family played a large role in raising the money and they were lucky it was successful.
“It’s funny that’s the ski team’s go-to. You need money? Go do a Rally Me. It works one time,” Duffy reasons. It’s obviously difficult to head back to the same donor pool year after year to request more money. The Duffys’ second Rally Me campaign raised just $11,540.
“It’s pretty stressful,” Duffy says of having to self-fund as a national team athlete. “It’s still there. I mean, T2 is only about a quarter of what I need to raise. I get some from Sugarbush, my head sponsor, and then there is still a pretty big deficit there that I need to figure out. But each year it’s definitely stressful.”
Duffy will consider himself a professional athlete when he earns any income from ski racing. Currently, the only athletes who do not have to pay U.S. Ski Team fees are A-Team members.
Between a long season, offseason training camps, and trying to see his family, there is not much time in Duffy’s schedule to fit in a paying job. Some of his teammates have picked up primarily manual labor jobs while they are in Park City.
“It’s hard to have them commit to you when you’re there for three weeks at a time,” he says of employers in Park City.
In 2015, Duffy was a member of the development team when he won the super-G at U.S. Nationals, beating out Steven Nyman and Travis Ganong and pushing Tim Jitloff off the podium. That summer he was named to the C-Team. It was a great accomplishment, but with the higher status on the team came higher costs.
Duffy has considered heading to college and competing on the NCAA circuit, but he isn’t ready to end his professional dreams just yet. With the support of the T2 Foundation, a number of highly talented ski racers in the U.S. who face this same dilemma have not had to pass on their dreams due to lack of funding.