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Workin' for a livin': Skaters take part-time jobs

Leaving the rink to find employment can be much-needed stress reliever

John Coughlin hard at work in his job at the Olympic Training Center.
John Coughlin hard at work in his job at the Olympic Training Center. (Blue Fox Photography)

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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to icenetwork.com
(05/31/2012) - It's no secret that figure skating is a pricey sport. Between equipment, coaching, choreography, ice time and other miscellaneous expenses, skaters at the upper levels of the sport can be looking at having to shell out tens of thousands of dollars a year just to cover basic costs.

To help make ends meet, some skaters add a part-time job to their busy days of training. While many stay in the rink to work -- teaching learn-to-skate classes and private lessons, manning the snack bar or working in the skating club office -- others take jobs unrelated to skating, feeling that getting away from the ice for a few hours is necessary to combat the stress of hard work and long days.

Reigning U.S. pairs champion John Coughlin has worked as an operations specialist at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs for the past four years. His duties in his role are varied; he does everything from preparing the logistics for programs and training camps being held at the OTC to registering guests at the front desk.

"I was hired as an athlete-employee, so they work around my training schedule," said Coughlin, who clocks between 20 and 25 hours each week, although due to his recent competitive success, which leads to increased funding, he'll be able to scale back a bit in future.

Canadian bronze medalist Jeremy Ten has worked at a designer clothing store for the last five years; he puts in about 15 hours a week (up to 25 hours during the holidays) as a stock sales associate.

He started out as a sales associate, but he wanted a change, so he took on more stock work.

"I really like the atmosphere at my job," Ten said. "I love fashion, I love clothes, I love meeting different types of individuals.

"It's kind of an escape from the rink life; to have an option where I can get away altogether is definitely healthy for me."

Ten says he may be interested in pursuing retail fashion after his skating career.

"I'm keeping it as an option," he said. "Sport is just one part of life. Having had injuries, and not quite knowing whether I was going to pull through, it was always nice knowing I had other things to focus on."

Toward the end of her singles career, 1999 U.S. silver medalist and 2007 U.S. pairs bronze medalist Naomi Poor (formerly Nari Nam) worked as a barista and cashier.

"I made drinks, hot and cold, did all the nitty-gritty," she said. "I got the job to do something other than skate, and to get away from my parents! It kind of worked out because I had friends who weren't skaters and it kept me from thinking about skating all day long.

"I think all skaters should have a job outside the rink, because it's good to get your head out of there."

Poor's former pairs partner, Themi Leftheris, worked at a restaurant when he was competing, as a server, host, food runner, bartender and table busser.

Although he averaged between 24 and 30 hours a week, his employer allowed him to cut down on his hours if he had competitions, shows or just needed some rest.

"They were pretty flexible with my schedule after I had worked there a couple of years," Ten said.

Two-time U.S. pairs champion Rockne Brubaker has worked long stints at two different jobs. In Colorado, he worked at a home improvement warehouse for three years, putting in 30-to-40-hour weeks on top of training and going to school.

"I was training in the morning until early afternoon, and I was usually working between 4 p.m and midnight four days a week," he said. "I was really busy. It was one of those things where I knew I had to do it to pay for skating."

After he moved to Los Angeles, Brubaker took a job at a fitness center, a position he held for about two years, to help supplement the increase in expenses. There, he worked in the service department, handling members' accounts and helping run the front desk.

"I really enjoyed it because I like talking to people, and it's a nice relief at times -- I was still dealing with people involved with athletics, and it was nice not to be stuck in the cold all day," Brubaker said.

Brubaker's current job has him back in the cold. He assists with coaching all of the younger teams in Jenni Meno and Todd Sand's rink, and he has between eight and 10 private students. His day starts at 5:30 a.m. with coaching, continues with his own training and finishes with more coaching.

Like many of his colleagues, pairs skater and icenetwork.com blogger Drew Meekins worked at a restaurant, but he was in the kitchen rather than the dining room. His job as a cook ("sort of a sous-chef, sort of a line chef") took up between 20 and 30 hours of his time a week.

"I worked the dinner service, which is really high-pressure," said Meekins, who worked either "garde manger" (cold food), on the sauté station or on the grill. "You want to be able to get the food out as fast as possible."

Meekins was competing with Jessica Rose Paetsch at the time, and he said that they were able to train later in the day.

"I was getting home really late," he said. "You work until people are done eating and then it takes about two hours to store the food and clean everything, so I didn't get home until 1 a.m."

Like most skaters, Meekins liked having a job completely separate from skating, and he still uses the skills he learned at Nosh.

"Cooking is a really strenuous job," he said. "It was nice to leave skating at the rink and go to the restaurant and really focus. It occupies all of your mind, so I couldn't think about skating at all. Cooking is technical, but there's also a lot of creativity. I liked having another creative outlet."

Whatever the precise nature of the job, there's no getting around the fact that work is tiring. This can be a challenge for athletes who have to train at the highest level and then rush off to spend several hours at an outside job.

Most admit that working can have an impact on their training.

"It was extremely hard being on my feet," remembered Leftheris. "On Fridays, in particular, I would start teaching at 6 a.m., start my training at 9 a.m., teach more private lessons and skating school until 7 p.m., then I would change at the rink, drive to the restaurant and work until midnight. And I would have to wake up and be at the rink the following morning for off-ice training! I remember always being physically exhausted."

"It's really tough," Poor said. "When I was skating pairs, I had to stop teaching because it was way too much for me. When you're having a bad day, you just want to leave, and you can't because of obligations teaching little kids."

Brubaker said that, for him, the key to dealing with exhaustion was just a matter of attitude.

"There were times when I was hurting a little bit," he said. "A lot of it is mindset -- I won two national titles while I was working those hours. Obviously, it's more ideal if you don't work quite as much and have time to recover. That's where training smart comes into play. The more efficient you are at practice, the less you abuse your body."

"There are definitely weeks where it's a lot to handle, especially with school in the mix," said Ten, who is in his third year at Simon Fraser University, working toward a B.A. in health science. "I'm fortunate that I have understanding managers. If I have to take a break and sit down, they're understanding. I have to be very conscious of how my body feels.

"There are some days where I'm in the midst of it all, and I don't know how I'm getting through it," he continued. "It's a choice; it makes you tougher as a person. But there are definitely times where I'm like, 'Why am I doing this?' "

As a cook, Meekins had to deal with an extra set of risks from his job: Cooks often cut or burn their hands.

"That was always on my mind," he said. "As a pairs skater, your hands are your most important tool, and I really tried hard not to jeopardize them. I never cut myself -- I don't know how! But I did burn myself a few times."

Coughlin says that although some workdays keep him on the run, a good portion of his job is spent at a desk.

"It's a good change of pace," he said. "Dalilah [Sappenfield] and Larry [Ibarra] have always encouraged me to be honest with them about where I'm at, after a long week of work. We tailor our workload so we're maximizing our energy on the ice. We've always had the mindset of 'quality versus quantity.'

"You have to get a little more creative, but that's the reality."