Over the next several weeks, the Money in Action series on XGames.com will explore the economics of action sports from the perspective of the athletes, filmmakers, companies and those working in and outside the industry. This story looks at the career options professional athletes have after their earning power declines.
During his eight-year career as a professional snowmobiler, Jay Quinlan pioneered the freeride discipline around his hometown of Valdez, Alaska, starred in films by Matchstick Productions, backflipped for David Letterman and helped introduce the sport to X Games viewers.
For the last two years of his pro career, though, Quinlan was no longer thinking about how to ride big-mountain ski lines on his sled or how to make his signature backflip score better. He was spending most of the money he made from snowmobiling on the job that would replace it.
"We all know it's never going to last," Quinlan says of a professional action sports career. "You've got to accept reality. Or at least I did. And I knew I needed to do something while I had that income, and go to school."
So while the rest of the world's best wrenched on their sleds and pined for Snowmobile Freestyle medals in Aspen, Quinlan attended helicopter flight school. He earned his pilot's license, quit snowmobiling and began flying full time in 2007.
Now, seven years into his action sports afterlife, Quinlan, 35, is trained to fly everything from commercial airplanes to helicopters large and small. He travels around the country on contracts, sleeping in hotels. For the past five months he has been stationed in Southern California, thousands of miles from his home in Anchorage, Alaska, flying U.S. Forest Service firefighters into wildland burns. He misses his wife and two children, ages 4 and 6, and has spent just 12 days at home since June. But he has a job he enjoys, which is more than many ex-pros can say.
For all the allure that an action sports career carries, it, like anything, rarely ends well. Physical skills diminish, 14-year-old phenoms emerge, sponsors move on -- often without warning or sympathy.
When it comes to an athlete's afterlife, Quinlan's case falls somewhere between the exception and the rule. It takes a savvy pragmatist to transition from sports stardom to the "real world" unscathed. Fewer still are able to thrive once they get there.
Quinlan's first job as a pilot paid $2,000 per month before taxes. He, like every ex-pro interviewed for this story, declined to say what he makes now, but in general, helicopter pilots earn around $70,000 a year, with the high end closer to $140,000.
Because his field requires specialized training, Quinlan's foresight was imperative to achieve a seamless transition between careers. Not every pro thinks ahead like that, but not every pro needs to, either. Dave Osato had no idea he would become a firefighter when his BMX career ended. Skateboarder Matt Hensley didn't begin playing the accordion until after his second career (as a paramedic) ended, but he picked it up so fast that he joined the Irish punk band Flogging Molly 14 months later. Former halfpipe snowboarding star Todd Richards, who competed in the X Games for a decade and won two gold medals, fell into his post-competition career literally by accident.
In 2004, Richards crashed early in the winter and was forced to sit out most of the season with a broken arm. ESPN asked Richards, known for giving articulate interviews, if he would consider commentating on the X Games since he couldn't compete. He took the network up on its offer and performed well. NBC noticed and hired Richards to work the 2006 Olympic halfpipe competitions, which led to repeat gigs at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games.
Richards, 45, worked hard to diversify his vocabulary and was careful during his career not to burn bridges, knowing he might have to make a living in snowboarding once he no longer contended for contest wins. He believes the action sports industry should do more to help athletes transition from one career to the next, but ultimately it's the pros' job to take initiative and prepare for the end, he says.
"Get creative before it happens to you," he says. "Talk about it. Don't make it a taboo subject to address the elephant in the room. Look, you're 35 years old now, and everyone on the team is 18. You know where this is going. Be proactive."
Hawaiian surfer Rochelle Ballard had to scramble when her biggest sponsor dropped her unexpectedly in 2008. After 17 years on the world tour, Ballard was left sitting on a hefty mortgage with little plan for how to replace the income surfing brought in. She turned her Sunset Beach home on Oahu's North Shore into a vacation rental, built a yoga and massage studio and began hosting wellness retreats. "One lady was skipping as she left the retreat," Ballard says. "I felt like I changed her life."
Two years ago, Ballard sold her house and moved back to her native Kauai. Her business, Surf Into Yoga, attracts guests from Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Brazil, among other places. "I'm making less than I did as a pro," Ballard says after a morning surf session, "but I know I'm growing toward that same figure in less time than it took me to get there as a surfer."
Most former pros fall into Ballard's category in that respect -- they're earning less money than they did at the height of their careers. Jason Ford and Aaron Estrada are exceptions. And their stories illustrate how divergent the afterlife blueprint can be.
Ford, 44, spent 15 years as a pro, helping to launch Ride Snowboards as well as Salomon's line of boards. He was preparing to sign with Salomon for another decade when Craig Kelly, his former teammate at Burton, died in an avalanche in 2003, jarring his view on the profession. He decided to go into media instead and founded the Snowboard Journal, then ran four other magazines, which eventually led to his current career as vice president of sports marketing for USA Today.
"Snowboarding for me was always about delivering more than I was being paid for," Ford says. "And that became my model for my career after snowboarding too."
Estrada never did that as a pro skier, which is part of the reason he is where he is today. During an up and down 10-year career, Estrada won the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships in Crested Butte, Colorado, three times. He was always one of the most gifted skiers in the industry, but he struggled with substance abuse -- everything from painkillers to heroin -- and eventually spent a year in rehab at Hope by the Sea, a residential treatment center in Southern California.
The experience changed Estrada's life. Not only has he been sober since January 2011, but when he finished his treatment, he earned his drug and alcohol counseling certificate and now counsels other patients on chemical dependency.
Estrada loves what he does but regrets that he doesn't have a stronger education base. Quinlan feels the same way. "I definitely ponder that thought, like, maybe I should've just gone to college and gotten a 9-to-5 job so I could go home every night," Quinlan says.
In what could be a sign of action sports' evolution, a growing number of pros are now getting their college degrees while their careers are still active. BMX street rider Brian Kachinsky, 32, who earned a business degree from Wisconsin in his early 20s, says he is unsure of what he wants to do when his career ends. But he is better equipped for the search, no matter when it begins.
"I'm going to do the best that I can today because I don't know what tomorrow will bring," Kachinsky says. "But at the same time, you're foolish if you don't prepare for the future."
The afterlife -- action sports industry jobs
While many action sports athletes earn enough money to live comfortably, rare is the foresighted pro who puts away enough to retire on. What happens to those who quit school to pursue pro athleticism for a decade or so? What do they do when their pro careers end? Some start brands in action sports, and others lend their knowledge and passion to jobs behind the scenes or outside the scene altogether. Here are a few career directions former pros have gone in to take that next step.
Not every second career requires a degree -- Ford has risen to prominence with a high school diploma -- and in fact, one of the few people who works to prepare action-sports pros for their post-athletic lives, Ryan Clements, rarely recommends traditional education. Instead, Clements -- who cofounded Excel Management in 2010 with Heath Brinkley, who is brand manager to skateboarder Paul Rodriguez -- advises pro skateboarders like Torey Pudwill, Felipe Gustavo and Austyn Gillette to manage their money better so that it lasts longer and they don't have to make desperate decisions when the industry moves on without them.
"It's the opposite advice from what a financial planner will give," Clements says. "A financial planner will say, 'What you really want to do is have the lowest mortgage payment possible and put all your money in mutual funds.' But these aren't doctors making $400,000 a year for 40 years. These guys might make a few hundred grand for a few years, and then they might make 80 grand for a few years and then maybe nothing. Or they might get hurt, or everything might go to hell in this industry."
Ultimately, an action sports pro's afterlife can go countless directions. Those who prosper have little in common beyond this: They became chameleons and adapted to their new environments.
Back when Ballard was still competing on the world tour, she hosted a handful of next-generation female surfers for a weekend surf camp and imparted a prescient message to, among others, Alana Blanchard, Carissa Moore and Coco Ho -- girls who would effectively become her replacements.
"I wanted to open their eyes to the different things that can happen and how to be prepared," Ballard says.
Her advice then was the same as it is now: "Don't just rely on one talent. Find whatever other interests you have in life, and build on them."