Professionalize Para 1

“Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but death and taxes.”

-Christopher Bullock, The Cobbler of Preston

Yes, I’m sending this #eyeronvision newsletter out on tax weekend here in the United States. This is a weekend that fills some with dread thinking how much they will owe the government in taxes, others with glee knowing that they are about to receive money back from the government, and still others with uncertainty as they try to understand if they owe the government money or if the government owes them money.

I’m going to go ahead and say this up front. I’m no tax expert. While I understand some extreme basics I would by no means feel confident doing all of my taxes on my own. That’s why I rely on a team of dedicated people who know what the heck they’re doing… AKA, my dad and his team of accountants. In fact, this newsletter is less about “taxes” specifically and more to introduce a topic that I and many others have been mulling over in our minds for some time. And that is “The Professionalization Of Paratriathlon.”

What Is A Professional?

One of the first questions we must ask ourselves when introducing this topic is “What is a professional?” In a nutshell a professional is defined as someone who is engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime. In other words, you are paid for the work you do.

Whether you are a lawyer, doctor, businessperson, grocery store bagger, Wal-Mart Greeter, cashier, etc, you do work and are paid for your time in currency. Whether that be the US dollar or nowadays some people are being paid in crypto currency…But that’s a whole nother thing that just makes my head hurt.

Over the course of the last 100-150 years or so we held down jobs that paid us for going into facilities and paid us fixed hourly wages based on how tough or valuable the job was viewed. Over the course of the last 50 or so years we have begun moving to an economy that supports outside the box thinking. We value our time more and more. We also value our entertainment, and we want to make as much money as possible so we can live comfortably and maybe leave some money for the next generation so that they are better off than we were. We’ve seen the rise of Hollywood, and professional sports leagues like the NFL, NBA and MLB. We see people in these industries making hundreds of millions of dollars. Then we see young entrepreneurs branching out, founding companies, coming up with incredible and innovative ideas as technology grows and expands. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Tictoc, and a zillion others.

We’ve seen the rise of nonsalaried/contract workers. The rise of the “gig economy,” and are constantly presented with this idea that it is easier than ever before to make money and a lot of it.

At the same time we’ve seen a rise in the price of goods and services such as food, housing, medicine, etc. There’s also a cry for more government support, while also equal cries for less government interference. More people want control over your money, my money, your life, my life. We are all pulled in so many different directions that it gets overwhelming.

So, what does all of this have to do with being a professional?

In a nutshell, you are a professional if you do work and are compensated by doing that work with money. I realize there is much more to being a professional, but we’re going with the most simple definition I can muster.

So if your main occupation is grocery store bagger, you are a professional grocery store bagger. If your primary occupation is being a triathlete and that is how you earn money, then you are a professional triathlete.

I began trying to make that shift from triathlon hobbyist to professional in 2017. In 2015 and 2016, I earned a paycheck from working for a nonprofit organization and then for the Department of the Navy. When I left the employ of the federal government I worked rolling meat into burgers at a local restaurant in Basalt, Colorado. At the same time I was ramping up my triathlon training and posting about what I was doing on social media. It was in the summer of 2017 that the Marketing department from Bubba Burger reached out to me and asked if I’d consider becoming part of their marketing team, but with a slight twist. I would continue training in triathlon, trail running, and adventure sports and continue posting about it. I would just now be tagging Bubba Burger on various social media platforms, and wear Bubba Burger apparel and give out coupons and apparel when possible.

It was a no brainer, continue training and racing, doing what I was already doing and receive a paycheck for doing it. It took a while to wrap my head around that essentially I was a professional athlete, even though I wasn’t the fastest or the best.

In 2018, I dipped my toe into the Paratriathlon circuit where I actually began testing myself against some of the best blind and visually impaired athletes in the world. I then raced exclusively on the International Triathlon Union (now World Triathlon) circuit in 2019 all the way through to today. I continue to work for Bubba Burger as a member of the Marketing Team, however, without the support of Bubba I would’ve had to quit being a professional triathlete several years ago. In fact, I believe that I would not have made it to the Paralympic Games without the support of Bubba.

Competing With The Best

My first “Elite” level race was the Continental Championships in 2018 which took place in Sarasota, Fla. In that race I took 4th, finishing 14sec off the podium and just over 5min behind the winner. In my second “Elite” race in October I successfully got onto the podium for the first time in my career with a 2nd place finish. Since then I’ve gone on to stand on 9 podiums in 12 “Elite” race starts including 2 wins. I noticed a few distinct differences between the “Age Group Physically Challenged” racing scene and the “Elite Paratriathlon” racing scene that I was now part of. For starters, on the elite circuit I might not know what race I’m doing until a maximum of 30 days prior to the race. So this meant I really couldn’t actually book tickets and accommodations until a minimum until I knew I was on a start list. This meant I needed to essentially be at my peak for much longer, basically most of the season, rather than just peaking for one or two A races. This also meant paying attention to how much I spent to travel and stay. I had to balance the benefits of staying close to race venues vs the expense. I after all was responsible for both paying for my guide and myself. Most people were actually surprised when I mentioned to them in conversation that racing Sprint Triathlon was significantly more expensive than racing Ironman. When I raced Ironman as an age grouper I raced a 70.3 two to three months out from my Ironman that I planned. So I had to budget and plan for two races, both of which took place domestically. Even with the high entry fees that Ironman charges I still might have to budget about $5000-10000 for the season. On the elite circuit in 2019 I had to budget for more than $20000. For one race alone to the Tokyo Test event in August, 2019, flights for my guide and I alone were $6000 (about $3000 each). Fortunately, USA Triathlon had an incentive plan that provided reimbursement if you made the podium. If I won I might get $2000 of that money back for a race. If I got 3rd, I might get $750 back. I got 4th so received no money back. Well, at least racing as an elite we now had access to prize money?… Nope.

As “Elite Paratriathletes” racing on the “World Triathlon Circuit” we have never been offered prize money for the races in which we compete. My USA Paratriathlon National Team teammate, Allysa Seely, recently penned an article in Triathlete Magazine (our sports largest publication) laying out several good points about the growth of Paratriathlon and how it’s now time to begin recognizing Paratriathlon as a career, not merely a hobby.

Moving from Hobby toward Profession

In 2018, the United States Olympic Committee was renamed/branded to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Additionally, medal bonuses for Olympic and Paralympic athletes were equalled. Until the 2018 Winter Games, Olympic Athletes would receive $37500 for each gold medal they won at an Olympic Games, $22000 for silver, and $15000 for bronze. On the Paralympic side, I’m actually not sure what the exact medal bonuses were but have been told that they were roughly about $7500 for gold, $5000 for silver and $2500 for bronze. Again, I’m not sure if these numbers are accurate, but I do know that the bonuses were SIGNVIFICANTLY lower. In 2018, the USOPC made the change to equal the medal bonuses and also to reward bonuses for World Championship performances in non-Olympic and Paralympic Games years. This “Operation Gold” initiative was a major shift in actually making Para Athletes feel like we weren’t merely charity cases. We were making steps to actually being recognized as athletes.

In 2019, USA Triathlon, The Challenged Athletes Foundation, and Toyota pulled together the first ever “Professional Prize Purse” for a Nationally sanctioned Paratriathlon to be awarded at the 2019 Paratriathlon National Championships. While the New York City Triathlon had offered prize money to the overall winners of the Paratriathlon Division in years past, this was the first time that each Paratriathlon sub-class would actually be awarded equal prize money. Each winner would receive $1500, 2nd would receive $750, and 3rd place would receive $375. And that was for each sport class. So PTVI men each received this, PTS2 women, PTWC men, women, etc, etc. The same prize purse was offered at the 2021 Paratriathlon National Championships.

In 2022, USA Triathlon again put their money where their mouth is and more closely aligned the Olympic and Paralympic programs as they equalled the National Team Benefits for both. To get the details on that check out this press release and if you’re curious to see what it takes to make the USA Paratriathlon National Team click here.

Additionally, USA Triathlon tweaked the Paratriathlon incentive plan so that instead of reimbursement for making the podium, paratriathletes receive prize money directly from USA Triathlon. This prize money varies depending on the location of the race. For example, if the race is a World Cup that takes place in North America the winner receives $1500. For a World Series that takes place outside of North America the winner will receive $2000. This prize money is only available to US athletes since it comes from USA Triathlon. Essentially it is still the same as the old reimbursement program except that we no longer have to submit receipts, and it likely will affect some of our taxes. However, this is again a step toward professionalizing the sport of Paratriathlon.

Quick Wrap Up For Now

Again, all of this shows tremendous progress from where we were just a few short years ago. There is still a long way to go. Just as in high performance sport, and in society, we should celebrate these successes of progress, however, we should not accept this as the ceiling. Now we’ve reached the lower level of a basement and we need to continue to look for ways to get to the first floor of the house, and then to the second floor, and then to blow the roof off the building. I’ll begin to discuss some of my thoughts on how we do this in my next #eyeronvision newsletter.

For now, I want to pause and thank my personal sponsors, in particular Bubba Burger, because without them I do not believe I would have made it to the Paralympic Games in 2021 and I would certainly not be able to continue on to try and return to the games in Paris 2024. I certainly would not feel like I could call myself a Professional Triathlete. Also a huge shout out to my bike sponsor Cycles Chinook who has been so amazing in providing me a great bike, endless consulting services, and bike parts for free or at cost when ever they’re able. A huge shout out to Walnut Street Publishing for partnering with me to publish the first part of my story. I’m currently also in the process of talking with additional partners and potential sponsors, some of which I hope to finalize soon and share with you all.

Finally, as always, thank you #eyeronvision fans, friends, and supporters. I really appreciate you all continuing to read these updates, musings, or whatever you’d like to call the contents of these newsletters. You all also allow me to call myself a Professional Athlete, and you’ll continue to play a role in my career. I just want to make sure you all know that I appreciate your support so incredibly much.

Thank you and remember that we’ll continue to explore this idea of being a professional, and how we can potentially professionalize the sport of Paratriathlon.

Until next time, always keep an “Eye On Your Vision!”

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