While Ross Powers's single mother worked in the cafeteria at Bromley Mountain in Southern Vermont, he honed his shred on the slopes outside and soon made a reputation in local halfpipe contests. But in order to advance his budding snowboarding career, Powers needed to travel to national contests. The problem: his mother couldn't afford to send him.
Today, Powers, 31 -- who has won two Olympic halfpipe medals (bronze in 1998; gold in 2002) and competes on the World Cup circuit in snowboard cross -- knows he's fortunate that local benefactors kicked in funding to help pay his way during his formative days.
"I grew up with riders -- a lot of those guys had good talent," said Powers. "But they didn't make it to the events where they could go on with the sport."
For Daron Rahlves, family had the means to fund his travel and expenses while competing in Europe until he qualified for the United States Ski Team at age 19. Today, Rahlves, 37, of Truckee, Calif., recognizes that it wasn't strictly talent that separated him from fellow competitors.
"In any sport, to make money to get to the top, you need to be one of the best," said Rahlves, who competed at four Olympics, and won a world championship in Super-G in 2001 and a gold medal in ski cross (known as Skier X) at the Winter X Games in 2008. "The question: How do you get there?"
To help talented riders and skiers who lack the financial resources or sponsor support to continue their training and travel, Rahlves and Powers have joined with Olympians from summer and winter sports to support the Level Field Fund. Founded in 2010 as an extension of the Ross Powers Foundation, the Level Field Fund provides grants to elite athletes to cover expenses ranging from instruction, to entry fees, to travel.
The first round of grant recipients will be announced by the end of the month. Powers said approximately 40 applicants have applied in sports ranging from snowboarding, skiing, swimming, skateboarding, and judo. Their ages range, too; some are in grade school, and others are in their 30s.
The grants will award more than $100,000, raised through fund-raising events and business sponsorships (Ortholite, a manufacturer of insoles for shoes, will donate $1 for each insole sold)
Other Olympic athletes supporting the Level Field Fund including snowboardcross gold medalist Seth Wescott, and swimming gold medalists Michael Phelps and Lenny Krayzelburg. Rahlves oversees the skiing component, in which there are eight applicants, from Alpine, ski cross, and freestyle disciplines.
"You pretty much need to show you've got talent and you are willing to work hard to develop it," Rahlves said about evaluation criteria. He also looks for demonstrated financial need.
Powers created the Level Field Fund to expand on what he had done through his foundation. The Ross Powers Foundation provided funding for Danny Davis to attend the Stratton Mountain School, a private training academy in Vermont. Davis, an X Games and Dew Tour standout, was on track to compete for the U.S. Snowboard Team in halfpipe at the 2010 Olympics before a back injury ended his season.
When Powers transitioned from halfpipe competition to snowboard cross racing in 2007, he noted that several of his fellow competitors struggled financially because snowboard industry sponsors failed to support racers in the same manner as they do halfpipe competitors. For many racers, traveling to train or compete created a financial hardship.
"In boardercross, a lot of mountains don't have courses yet," Powers said. "A lot of those athletes need extra support that's not provided for them."
Powers's foundation went on to assist Nick Baumgartner and Graham Watanabe, both of whom wound up beating Powers for a spot on the Olympic team at the Vancouver Games last year. The outcome was not necessarily what Powers had in mind for leveling the playing field.
"It was definitely weird for some of my teammates to have a chance to beat me and make the team," he said with a laugh.