Skiers count the cost of living 'White Circus' dream

Story highlights

  • Pro skiers struggle to secure funding
  • Female racers battle gender stereotypes
  • Use social media to "unmask" their identity

(CNN)With skis in tow they travel the globe, flitting like fireflies to some of the world's most beautiful mountain locations.

But the glamor and glitz of skiing's World Cup circuit, dubbed the "White Circus," is not quite as sparkly when you have to pay for it yourself.
Take Lila Lapanja, a 22-year-old member of the US Alpine B Ski Team.
    "At my level I'm not funded," she said recently before a pre-race training session.
    The US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) does cover her biggest expense, the salaries of the training, technical and medical staff who prepare her to race on the world stage. Totaling more than $100,000 per skier, according to USSA president and chief executive Tiger Shaw, it's a significant sum.
    But, as Lapanja noted of the cost-sharing arrangement: "I have to pay for all of my travel expenses."
    Air fare, including several transatlantic flights each season as the circuit criss-crosses the planet, isn't exactly cheap. Nor is lodging at the top ski resorts in Europe and North America.
    Shaw estimates these additional sums average about $25,000 per skier each season, the equivalent of a year's worth of college tuition at some US universities. It's a significant issue, one the USSA is well aware of.
    The US system, which receives no government funding, is among the few top ski nations that can only fully finance the senior A Team. Despite private donations, there's a $2 million funding gap.
    Luke Bodensteiner, the USSA's executive vice president of athletics, acknowledges the pitfalls.
    "The most important thing for us to do," he said, "is to provide things for the athletes that nobody else can, that will make them great: excellent coaching, training facilities, sports signs."
    But, he admitted, "it definitely loads the stress on the athlete."
    Lapanja is lucky. Her sponsor, Clif Bar, helps offset a lot of the costs, which also include paying USSA to be a named athlete. Moreover, as a B Team member, she can also be reimbursed by race organizers for her appearances.
    Yet the numbers are still daunting, so creativity and brand-building become essential.

    Building the Brand

    For Lapanja, this means melding her personality with causes she cares about. In 2015, she was named an official ambassador for the Snow Leopard Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the endangered species and their environment.
    "It's my spirit animal," she said of the elusive mountain cat. "My biggest goal is to get in the start gate and have total belief in myself, to be like a snow leopard."
    But Lapanja also admires the organization, and what it seeks to accomplish.
    Such considerations play into how she builds her public persona, but the partnership's synergy is also a way to fund her quest to reach the 2018 Winter Games. Through the Snow Leopard Trust, Lapanja sells a special-edition snow leopard-print shoulder bag, the proceeds of which go towards her travel costs.
    US skiers have, by necessity, become experts at building professional identities, and USSA mentors them in this endeavor. They help athletes not just market themselves, but turn this skill into employable, entrepreneurial occupations.
    One of the keys to success in raising funds to train and build a brand is allowing the public full access to a skier's personality. And often, they're flamboyant.
    Racing has always had a cast of splashy characters to complement the seemingly luxurious lifestyle on tour, racing the world's steepest and poshest peaks.
    But now, according to Shaw, American skiers realize they need to show their more colorful sides to build a portrait of themselves, because skiing is very much like race-car driving -- it's difficult to tell athletes apart on the course.
    "We wear helmets and goggles," he said. The critical question becomes: "what is that person like behind that mask?"

    The social media storm

    Social media is one of the keys to unmasking the skier, and even the most well-known US racers feel pressure to continually produce content for their accounts. Many, however, find that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram allow for more artistic, creative ways of expressing themselves.
    For Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, building her brand this way is fun.
    "Right now it's stimulating, it doesn't feel like a burden at this point," she said. "There are times when I'm lucky to say 'oh, it's my job!'"
    Yet, as anyone who has tried to grow an online following can attest, social media is deceptive and takes a lot of time. Most skiers accept this as a tool of the trade, even when they're exhausted from training sessions or public appearances like school visits and autograph signings.
    In France, the skier behind the goggles is important in different ways.
    The French system supports all of its skiers once they reach the national teams, through a mix of federation, Olympic Committee and federal funding. Tessa Worley, for example, who is fifth overall in the ladies World Cup standings, is one of 70 skiers paid by the French administration.
    While the same pressure to fundraise doesn't exist, social media and building a personal identity is just as crucial for French ski racers' ability to reach the public.
    Despite images of snow-capped resorts and the heritage of legend Jean-Claude Killy, France's love of skiing as a pastime doesn't extend to ski racing. There's little live public television coverage of the sport, a hugely problematic issue for its current and future athletes.
    But for Michel Vion, president of the French Ski Federation (FFS), there's another reason why social media has become an important outlet for his female racers.
    "There's less media coverage for women's [sports in general]," he said. "If you have a superstar champion, of course she's covered in the same way as a man. But you need a superstar like Shiffrin."
    France hasn't produced such a skier in a while, making it difficult for the sport to garner attention, says Vion.

    Fighting stereotypes

    But female athletes also face an uphill battle based on cultural perceptions of what women can -- and cannot -- do as professionals.
    France's women's alpine team coach Anthony Sechaud, a longtime veteran of the ski circuit, believes these stereotypes contribute to the lack of media and public interest in elite racers.
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    "People in France don't think that a woman can be a [professional] athlete in the same way as a man," he said, citing the difficulty in getting coverage of Worley's giant slalom World Championship win in 2013.
    While social media helps gain exposure, it comes with some strings attached.
    "When you are a female athlete, you have to be very good on and off the field," Sechaud said. For men, it's a very different scenario, for they don't have the same pressure to look good or smile all the time as part of their public persona.
    Worley is aware of the challenges to be more than just the best racer.
    "For skiing, you're in a race suit, you're wearing a helmet in the cold, it's not very feminine," she admitted. Female skiers unfortunately need to present themselves differently from their male counterparts to bridge this gap in public perception.
    It's a difficult situation to confront, to admit that you have to be more well-liked by the public in order to prove you're just as good, if not better than, your male counterparts.
    The double standard is hard and unfair, Sechaud emphasized. Society needs to change, to evolve. "We have to think about women in sports as athletes first," he said.
    Younger American skiers insist that they have not encountered such challenges. But others are quick to point out that the media spotlight on individual personalities like Lindsey Vonn or Julia Mancuso for bikini workouts and photospreads in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition feed off conventional gender stereotypes.

    On marriage

    Racers like 15-year U.S. ski team veteran Resi Stiegler acknowledge that while such ploys may seem odd or bring negative attention to the team, they also bring benefits.
    "It's done wonders for our sport because people know what it is now," she said. "It gives us more opportunities, to have more income at times."
    The 31-year old finds that gender stereotypes surface in other ways and there's very much a sense that women sacrifice more than men to remain on the professional circuit.
    Resi Stiegler in action at Maribor, Slovenia, last season.
    "You have lot of [people] questioning how long you're going to do it for," she said.
    She's frequently asked when she will stop racing, have children, and start a family.
    "Whenever I want!" Stiegler insisted, noting that the same questions are never posed to her male colleagues in their mid to late-30s. While women's ability to have kids later in life is starting to change the double-standard nature of this conversation, it still frustrates pros who field such queries.
    Stiegler strives to be an example, to break the barrier, and prove to younger colleagues that it's possible to be a professional female racer well into your 30s.
    So does Worley, who at 27 acknowledges that she's in the second half of her career. Aware that her pro days won't last forever, she aims to win as frequently as possible to set an example to younger colleagues and encourage them to set the bar higher.
    The morning after fielding questions about whether she feels pressure as a woman over performance and her age, Worley skied to a World Cup giant slalom victory in Killington, Vermont, her first podium appearance since 2013.