Lure of Olympic Gold Beats Morgan Stanley for Ex-Harvard Rower
World champion rower Michael Blomquist valued the chance for an Olympics gold medal in London more than an analyst job at Morgan Stanley. He said the decision wasn’t easy.
“It’s always going to be a difficult proposition to walk away from good money and from something that is comfortable and straightforward,” Blomquist said. “I’m loving every day, but of course sometimes I do feel like I made a terrible decision. I walked away at a point where I felt like I was on an upward track at work.”
The 30-year-old -- who won a world title with the U.S. men’s eight in Japan in 2005 -- quit his analyst job with Morgan Stanley in 2010 to try to get into the U.S. boat for the Olympic Games in London, which start July 27.
The 2003 Harvard University graduate put his professional life on hold for three years to pursue medals, and then joined Morgan Stanley’s London office for four years. The call of the games brought him back to the water, and he’s competing with 15 others for a spot in the men’s eight.
Blomquist is based in Oakland, California. He’s covering his living costs out of his savings, passing up the chance to be earning 69,850 pounds ($112,000), the average salary of a London-based analyst with two to four years of experience, according to recruitment agency Reed Global. He declined to give his salary at the bank.
Coaches are in the process of picking the crew for the last Olympic qualifying race in May in Switzerland.
Unlike the U.K. or France, U.S. sports don’t get government funding and rely heavily on corporate sponsorship and individual donors. This leaves lesser-known sports like rowing to rely on a budget of about $3.5 million to cover food, coaching, equipment, housing and travel for 40 men and women. It also forces athletes to make a financial decision about when to stop depending on part-time jobs or parents to fund the chase for a medal.
“Our athlete base is typically well-educated as well as highly motivated so they have lots of opportunities,” National Rowing Foundation board member and former Olympian Jamie Koven said. “The No. 1 issue that we’re competing against is people going and getting jobs.”
U.S. rowers live on a stipend of between $300 and $1,000 a month, according to USRowing Chief Executive Officer Glenn Merry. USRowing, the national governing body of the sport, is in charge of distributing money from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC contributes about one third of the sport’s annual budget, he said. The rest comes from corporate sponsors, wealthy donors and fundraising events like charity golf.
Blomquist made the national team as a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard. A year after winning at the 2005 World Championships, he finished fourth at the event on the same lake where the Olympic rowing will take place this year.
“I was getting burnt out,” he said. “At that point I was seeing all my friends doing well in their jobs, enjoying vacations and lots of different things I wasn’t experiencing. I wanted to stop putting my life on hold, which is what it feels like when you’re living on $1,000 a month.”
British rower Greg Searle knows that feeling.
“When I was a rower the first time round, it was like being a student,” said Searle, who won a gold medal at 20 in Barcelona and is looking to do the same in London two decades later. “Now, the funding is at a level where it’s like getting your first job. So people can make a decision to say, rather than leaving university or whatever they’ve been doing at 18 and getting a job, they can become a full-time rower.”
U.K. Sport gets about 100 million pounds a year from the government and the National Lottery for high-performance sport in Britain. Funding began in 1997 and British rowing receives around $10 million annually.
Countries including France and Britain are targeting rowing and other sports such as cycling that generate numerous medals. U.K. Sport has awarded British rowing 27.2 million pounds between 2009 and 2013, the most of all sports. Britain was the top rowing nation at the Beijing Games, taking home six medals.
“Success is expensive, to compete on the world stage, with the world’s best, against the world’s best, is expensive,” Liz Nicholl, CEO of U.K. Sport, said in an interview at London’s Olympic Velodrome, where the track cycling will be held.
“The difference the National Lottery has made is that athletes now can choose to actually be full-time athletes,” she said.
In France, Jean-Christophe Rolland worked as a quality maintenance engineer for Electricite de France SA while training for the 1996 Atlanta Games and 2000 Sydney Olympics, where he won a gold medal.
“I had in mind that it was absolutely incompatible to have these two very high, time-consuming activities,” he said. “Rowing at a high level means training six hours a day, 180 days a year away from home, so when you think about those constraints, it seems impossible to work for a company.”
EDF gave him an adapted schedule and he trained during his lunch break. In France, companies are encouraged to give athletes jobs and may recover some of their salary from the sports ministry, Rolland said, adding that the utility employs 16 Olympic hopefuls.
Rowers are at their best in their late 20s and can compete well into their 30s, so the challenge of reconciling professional ambitions with athletic dreams is especially difficult, Rolland said.
U.S. Seeking Qualification
The U.S. men’s eight hasn’t qualified for the Olympics yet. With 14 different medal events, two- and four-man boats are given a priority, said Koven, a two-time world champion who is in training for London 2012. It is the first time the U.S. men’s eight hasn’t qualified for the Olympics at the preceding World Championships. The nation’s flagship crew will be named by April 30. A win at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta on May 20- 23 in Lucerne, Switzerland, will secure a spot at the Games.
“It’s daunting, but my dream and my need for an Olympic gold medal is worth it,” Blomquist said.
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