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When Being An Olympic Snowboarder Doesn't Pay The Bills

Omar Visintin of Italy, Konstantin Schad of Germany, Jonathan Cheever and Tim Watter of Switzerland compete during the FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup in France in December.
Laurent Salino/Agence Zoom
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Omar Visintin of Italy, Konstantin Schad of Germany, Jonathan Cheever and Tim Watter of Switzerland compete during the FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup in France in December.

The life of a top U.S. snowboarder is an expensive one. Some top boarders come from wealthy backgrounds. But Jonathan Cheever, who's going to his first Olympics this year, has supported himself with a family trade. He's a plumber.

Snowboard cross is an aggressive sport. Several snowboarders race side-by-side down a twisting course, edging past each other all way to the finish line.

"There's bumps, jumps, turns," Cheever says. "Snowboarders reach speeds of up to 65, 70 miles an hour."

Some Olympians are able to train nonstop, year-round, to be at the top of their game. But others like Cheever also have to have a regular job.

"Right now, we're standing in the bathroom. To your left is the tub shower you see right here — this is going to be the floor drain," Cheever says, standing in a Somerville, Mass., construction site that's still just a skeleton of two-by-fours. Cheever's family business is doing the plumbing on the site.

Cheever grew up in Saugus, Mass., and started sorting plumbing fixtures for his father's business when he was 10 years old — about the same time he began snowboarding. Shortly after high school he passed the test for his own plumbing license.

Jonathan Cheever at a construction site in Somerville, Mass.
Craig LeMoult / WGBH
Jonathan Cheever at a construction site in Somerville, Mass.

"Plumbing's, you know, a pretty good living," his father Mark says. "So if everything else fell apart he could always make a decent living as a plumber, you know, any place in the world."

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 that travel can add up.

Cheever says some of the boarders come from wealthy backgrounds, but not everyone. "It's a lot of working-class guys that are just grinding it out, trying to win," he says.

It was in Utah that he realized his plumbing could help support his snowboarding. "I was like, 'Oh man, I could use some money,' and then, you know, people I'm staying with are like, 'Actually, our friends need their faucet changed or their sink changed,' or, 'They just bought a new gas range. Can you install it for them? And they'll pay you.' "

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, which he used to support his snowboarding. "I'm in debt chasing a dream rather than paying off student loans at the moment," he says. "And I'm comfortable with that."

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.

"He's one of the best in the world so, I figure 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," Derek says as his older brother laughs.

Cheever says that in some ways, learning to snowboard was a bit like learning plumbing. "I wasn't an expert at plumbing right away," he says. "A lot of it was learning by trial and error. And my father always said I had a lot of brute strength and ignorance. And actually that carried my snowboard career quite far."

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 hurtles down a South Korean mountain 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.

Copyright 2018 GBH

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.