GREENSBORO, N.C. — Heather Richardson of High Point headed off to the Winter Olympics in Sochi as a serious medal contender in the 500- and 1,000-meter speedskating events.
It didn’t work out. She finished seventh in the 1,000 — her specialty — and eighth in the 500.
And that hurt the bottom line.
American medal-winners also win cash bonuses from the U.S. Olympic Committee: $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. The prize money is taxed, but it certainly would’ve been nice.
Because speedskating is Richardson’s life. But it is not her livelihood.
Not entirely, anyway.
Speedskating alone won’t pay the rent or the bills associated with day-to-day life.
Until the last eight months, when training for the Sochi Games got truly serious, Richardson held regular jobs to help make ends meet.
Starting as soon as she arrived in Utah six years ago, Richardson led a double life. She trained and traveled with the US Speedskating World Cup team. And she worked for a living at Walmart, Bath & Body Works and GE Healthcare.
“At first, it was so difficult,” Richardson said. “I remember I would wake up, train, have lunch, go back and train some more, then change clothes and go straight to work.
“I worked 6 to 11 every night at Walmart. But that was just too much, so I didn’t stay there very long.”
She was 18 years old and living away from home for the first time. She was chasing her dream. But she was lonely. And weary.
“She would call me crying. She was just so tired,” said her mother, Pat. “She would finish a three-hour bike ride as part of her training, and she wouldn’t even have time to go home and shower before work. Poor thing.
“Then she was on her feet for eight hours after training. It was very, very painful. Sometimes, after the store would close, they would do set-up work, where they took everything down from the shelves and rearranged it. She would be there until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning those nights, then have to be up for training. Me being in North Carolina and knowing she was leaving work that late with nobody to watch her walk out to her vehicle, well, you worry as a parent.”
There were times Richardson wanted to quit. Just chuck it all and come home.
But the desire to compete was stronger. So she learned to balance her sport and her job.
“After Walmart, I got a job at Bath & Body Works and did that for about four years,” Richardson said. “By then I had learned that I couldn’t work every single day. If I did that, I couldn’t train and recover the way I needed to. I had to learn to pick and choose days, and I had to figure out how to do it.”
Richardson liked her last job, assembling medical kits at GE Healthcare. She made friends who came to watch her meets at the Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah — even after she no longer worked there.
Richardson was one of the lucky ones, U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro said. She got faster and faster on the ice. She started scoring top-three finishes at World Cup meets, spots that pay a little bit of prize money.
“Quite frankly,” Shimabukuro said, “the parents and families end up bankrolling a lot of the skaters out here. … Skaters like Heather and Brittany (Bowe), because of their (World Cup) results from last year, they were able to make some prize money. Between that and USOC and US Speedskating stipends, they had enough to focus solely on training.
“They’re not living high on the hog. But they’ve made enough to get by.”
It’s a tenuous existence, because the money is predicated on winning.
“As long as she stays at the top of her game, she does get prize money at the end of the season,” Pat Richardson said of her daughter. “With the placements she claimed, she’ll get around $700 a month until the next skating season. It’s not enough to live on by itself, but it does help.”
Corporate sponsors help, too. Right now, those include heavyweights BMW, Wheaties and Anheuser-Busch.
“Budweiser was a tough one for her,” Pat Richardson said. “She went back and forth on whether to take that money because of the alcohol. She doesn’t drink.”
But Richardson does train. And she has to make ends meet to do it.
An Olympic medal would certainly help. Beyond the prize money are other sponsorship opportunities.
Richardson’s next chance comes at 9 a.m. Sunday in the 1,500 meters.
It’s her weakest event, with one third-place finish in four World Cup events this season.
But she’ll compete. Because speedskating is her life, and for now, her livelihood.