U.S. Olympian Sugar Todd started speedskating when she was eight years old. At age nine, she told her parents that she wanted to move from their hometown in Nebraska to Milwaukee to get more access to better coaching and facilities, and she has trained at a top level ever since then.
In 2012, Todd received her first invite to join the U.S. National Speedskating Team, and competed in the World Cup that year. Two years later, she qualified for the Olympic Winter Games Sochi — and she is returning to the 23rd Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018.
Ahead, she tells Refinery29 what it's like to be a top athlete — psychologically and financially — from a young age.
This interview has been edited and condensed for concision and clarity.
What is your family’s financial background and how was that impacted by you becoming a professional speedskater?
"My dad was a firefighter for the city of Omaha, and that was pretty much most of our income; my mom was mostly a stay-at-home mom and worked jobs here and there. They didn’t burden me with financial worries growing up, but speedskating's not a cheap hobby to take up. When I first started and was still skating out of Nebraska, we would travel for competitions, sometimes to Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Ohio. That's not as simple as a weekend soccer game in your neighborhood. My mom and I moved full-time to Wisconsin, and the older I got and the more competitive I got, the more expensive the equipment became.
"At the level I’m at now, everybody wears custom-molded boots that cost close to $2,500. On top of that, you need blades, which are another $700 or $800. Boots, you can use for many seasons. They’re made of carbon fiber and typically you would get them re-leathered or re-covered — just minor things that might need work after a couple of years. The blade really depends on the skater. Some people might want new ones every season; other people use the same blade for two, three, maybe even four seasons.
"To this day, my parents are still very much like, 'If you need any money or anything, just tell us.' They don’t want me, at any point, to be stressed out over whether or not I can pay rent when I'm training for the Olympics. They want me to be able to be focused 100% on my competitions and not have that be a burden on top of all the other stressors an athlete might feel."
Many Olympians have to pay their way more than some people realize. What are the out-of-pocket expenses viewers don’t know about?
"As I'm on the national team and the World Cup team, I’m pretty fortunate that lot of my expenses are covered. Things I think that might surprise people are the fact that I have to pay race entry fees for U.S. championships, or our Olympic trials coming up. I believe it’s a $99 entry fee for those competitions. When I go to Milwaukee for Olympic trials, I’m responsible for booking my own flight, paying for it, and paying for a hotel if I need to; I’m lucky enough to have friends that still live there so I have somewhere to stay. But [it's on me] if I need to rent a car — and then obviously there's a lot of equipment."
Before you got to this level, what were the expenses you had to take on?
"Coaching fees, ice fees. I don’t have to pay for those now, but before you make the national team, I believe, you have to pay your coach and your ice time. When I was little, I remember we went to Calgary every November for a competition, and all the skaters collectively divided [the cost] to send our coach and cover his airfare and hotel."
Many female athletes have discussed the pay gap between men and women in their sports in recent years. Have you observed that in speedskating?
"It’s definitely something I think about as a female, but fortunately, in our sport, there is no pay gap. We don’t often get paid, so I guess that probably settles that, but the funding we receive from the U.S. Olympic Committee is based on our results from the World Championships of the previous competitive year. So, if you finish in top three, you get tier-one funding. There’s a whole ranking system and it’s equal for males and females."
It’s great to hear there’s no difference in your sport! What are your thoughts on other female athletes going through that?
"It is remarkable that it still exists and that it’s not something that seems to be easily remedied. I’m [relieved] that’s not an additional stressor on my competitive career, but I can’t imagine being an athlete, working really hard, sacrificing everything I’ve sacrificed and winning, and realizing at the end of the day that I was making less than somebody simply because of my sex."
You recovered from an injury last year, and that can be really nerve-wracking. What keeps you going despite the uncertainty of being an Olympian?
"Accomplishing this goal is the greatest achievement I can think of, and it’s what I’ve been working towards for almost 20 years now. The financial burdens that come along with it are something I take a month at a time, or a year at a time.
"Typically, I have a rough idea of how much money I will be getting each competitive season. Last year was difficult because of my knee surgery; I didn’t know how much competing I would be able to do, and it was very touch-and-go all year whether or not I would qualify for the World Championships. That is the competition that funding is based off of, and if I don’t go to that competition, I get zero funding.
"The funding I am receiving currently is because of my injury. I didn’t place high enough at the competition to receive any of the tiered levels of funding, but the final tier is for basically my exact scenario, where I have a legitimate reason that I wasn’t competing at my best, or I didn’t get to train how I would have normally trained. The process is to kind of petition and say this is what happened, they come back and say, yeah, you get this level of funding. That was extremely stressful last year because I wanted to be training and racing but I couldn’t, and that impacts my income for the next competitive season in a very significant way."
Where do your earnings come from? Winning competitions? Sponsorships?
"Most of income comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) in the form of a monthly stipend, $1,000 a month, that I receive nine months out of the year. That is solely based on how I competed at one event last February, and it's calculated every year. On top of that, I personally reached out to Natural Grocers and got [them] to sponsor me, so I have my food paid for, which is really helpful.
"I had a former teammate who was really good at marketing himself, and talking himself up. He would reach out to people or business and say, 'Hey, this is who I am, and this is what I’ve done. Can you help me either in the form of products, or maybe with financial support?' The worst thing that happened is maybe they’d say no, and he was no [worse] off than before. I remember thinking distinctly about that and telling myself to just suck it up and [ask].
"My parents still insist on writing me checks from their checkbook every month. For many years, I've been at a point where I don’t want their financial support anymore because I’m 27 years old and I feel like I’ve achieved a high-enough level in my sport that my parents shouldn’t be underwriting my dreams anymore, but they kind of have to help me make ends meet. So, my parents, the USOC, and a grocery store were my main sources of income going into this season. And now Toyota!"
What is it like being sponsored by a company like Toyota? That's a big get!
"Very exciting! I still can’t believe it happened. When I found out that Toyota wanted me to be a Team Toyota athlete, it was one of those I’m a real athlete moments. This is a real endorsement. This is the big time! Maybe less than a week later, I found out that they wanted to do a commercial, and I was like, what is happening?!
"My parents play my real parents in the commercial, which I think is going to make anybody who knows us lose their minds when they see it. The story of the commercial isn't 100% my story or life journey in speedskating, but a lot of the elements mirror very closely what I’ve experienced. I’m from a town as small as they come, Union, NE. There’s a main street you could probably throw a rock down, and it’s all farmland.
"My family are farmers and it’s kind of funny to think that’s where I started. In the commercial, there are all of these people helping me — taking me to practice, helping me train, being supportive. I didn’t live in one place long enough to have a town like that behind me, but I’ve definitely had people behind me every step along the way."
What do you enjoy about being an Olympian?
"At this point, the challenge of it. I’m at the level where I just need to make really fine adjustments to go a few tenths of a second faster. It can be extremely frustrating, but also extremely satisfying once you figure it out, and I look at each race as an opportunity to challenge myself to be faster. Also, being able to travel all over the world for skating — [albeit] mostly the Northern hemisphere — is an incredible opportunity."
People often marvel at the motivation that top athletes have. What is your special something that gives you that focus and drive?
"Sometimes I take a step back and think about how my entire life has been based on this goal to be the fastest at skating in a circle, and it just seems totally insane. That is my life work! I think it’s just down to wanting something so bad; it gets easier the longer you do it because you’ve put in so much time. It’s not that you have to keep after it, but it's easier to keep working towards it when you realize how far you’ve already come.
"I look back on all the small competitions I’ve done along the way. You don’t start off as an eight year old training for the Olympics; that’s the goal. You go to local competitions and regionals; you compete in age groups so you’re only racing people your age, or maybe a year older. Then you get to junior level and you’re racing people within a five-year age gap. Maybe you keep going and you get to the senior level, and you make your first senior World Cup, and you’re finally competing against other people internationally, but you’re competing in the B division.
"It’s lots and lots of really small steps. I’m at the point now where I can look back and go, whoa, I really did do a lot to get here. I’m so close now, and I’m so much closer than I have ever been. That helps to keep things in perspective."
Disclosure: Toyota is a brand partner of Refinery29.