When Being An Olympic Snowboarder Doesn't Pay The Bills : The Torch Some Olympians are able to train year-round to be at the top of their game. Others, like snowboarder Jonathan Cheever, also need to have a regular job.

When Being An Olympic Snowboarder Doesn't Pay The Bills

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's hear now about one American athlete's path to the Winter Games, snowboarder Jonathan Cheever. This is his first time competing in the Olympics, and to get there he supported himself with a family trait. He is a plumber. Craig LeMoult of member station WGBH in Boston has his story.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Snowboard cross is an aggressive sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right on the inside there in the red, that is Alex Deibold making a move in Cheever.

LEMOULT: Several snowboarders race side-by-side down a twisting course, edging past each other all the way to the finish line.

JONATHAN CHEEVER: There's bumps, jumps, turns.

LEMOULT: That's Jonathan Cheever.

J. CHEEVER: Snowboarders reach speeds of up to 65, 70 miles an hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, look at this. Side-by-side. Oh, two riders go down. Deibold and Cheever down.

LEMOULT: And while some Olympians train nonstop, year-round to be at the top of their game, others like Cheever also have to have a regular job.

J. CHEEVER: I can show you around if you want.

LEMOULT: Cheever's a plumber. Inside this construction site, it's still just a skeleton of two-by-fours.

J. CHEEVER: Right now, we're standing in the bathroom. To your left is a tub shower, as you could see. Right here, this is going to be the floor drain.

LEMOULT: Cheever grew up in Saugus, Mass., and started sorting plumbing fixtures for his father's business when he was 10 years old, about when he began snowboarding. Shortly after high school, he passed the test for his own plumbing license. His father, Mark, said he wanted Jonathan to have a trade.

MARK CHEEVER: Plumbing's, you know, a pretty good living. You know, so if everything else, you know, fell apart, he could always make a decent living as a plumber, you know, any place in the world.

LEMOULT: Cheever tried college but gave it up after his freshman year to move to Utah and focus on his real love, snowboarding. Less than six months later, he was on the national team, a dream come true. But the national team doesn't financially support the snowboarders, and all of that travel adds up. Cheever says some of the athletes come from wealthy backgrounds.

J. CHEEVER: But it's a lot of working-class guys that are just grinding it out, trying to win.

LEMOULT: It was in Utah that he realized his plumbing could help support his snowboarding.

J. CHEEVER: You know, I was like, oh, man, I could use some money. And then, you know, people I'm staying with were like, oh, actually our friends need their faucet changed or the sink changed or they just bought a new gas range. Could you install it for them? And they'll pay you.

LEMOULT: He also started doing installations for a Home Depot subcontractor. Cheever says running his own small business also meant he could get a bigger line of credit.

J. CHEEVER: I'm in debt chasing a dream rather than paying off student loans at the moment, and I'm comfortable with that.

LEMOULT: These days, training for that dream doesn't leave a lot of time for plumbing. His brother Derek says he's doing most of the work in the family business.

DEREK CHEEVER: He's one of the best in the world, so I figured he can keep doing that as long as he can, you know, stay on top until he's an old man and can't snowboard anymore

LEMOULT: Cheevers says in some ways, learning to snowboard was a bit like learning plumbing.

J. CHEEVER: I wasn't an expert at plumbing right away. A lot of it was learning by trial and error. And you know, my father always just said I had a lot of brute strength and ignorance, and actually that carried my snowboard career quite far.

LEMOULT: Ignorance, he says, can be a good thing. If you don't know how dangerous something is, you're more willing to take the risk. As he takes those risks at his first Olympics, his other life as a plumber will be right there with him. Two of his sponsors are a water heater supplier and a kitchen and bathroom fixtures company. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Boston.

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