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Olympic athlete details harsh financial reality: ‘I’ve barely kept afloat’

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Starting a highly competitive internship at JPMorgan is usually a promising step toward a lucrative career in finance – unless you’re Sam Mattis, who set his sights on the Olympics.

While he was a student at Wharton, Mattis won the 2015 NCAA National Championship in discus. It happened during his first week with the bank, and it changed the trajectory of his career.

“Saying no to banking money was not the most fun deal, especially considering how much I knew I was going to be struggling financially, and have struggled financially,” Mattis told Yahoo Finance. “But honestly, it wasn’t a very hard decision for me. I knew that this is what I wanted to do, and only had one chance to really do this in my whole life. It’s not like I can finish a career somewhere and then decide to be an athlete.”

Mattis pursued a career in discus throwing after graduating from Wharton in 2016, hoping he might one day compete at the Olympics. 

“I made a little bit of money off of like those gambling apps and a little bit of sports betting and blackjack,” said Mattis, who's competing in his first Olympics in Tokyo, which starts July 23. “I got some support from USA Track and Field, and then I’ve had a bunch of odd jobs since then to try to make ends meet. So I've barely kept afloat for most of the last five years, but I’ve managed.”

Olympic athlete Sam Mattis competes in the discus throw at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, September 28, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Olympic athlete Sam Mattis competes in the discus throw at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, on September 28, 2019. (REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

While the NCAA changed its rules in July to allow college athletes to earn money based on their fame and celebrity, it’s too late for Mattis, who says the new policy could have helped him secure sponsors after his NCAA championship win.

“For college athletes today, I think that’s a great thing. They should get some compensation for the work that they’re doing and for their name and likeness,” he said.

The Olympics are known for opening up financial opportunities for many athletes who win medals – but there’s no guarantee.

[See more Olympics coverage here]

“There aren't a lot of opportunities, so anytime you do have that sort of opportunity to get your name on stage, or on a podium, that’s just huge and makes a huge difference,” said Mattis, who is 27. “It can be the difference between being able to make it to the next Olympic Games financially or not. So it’s definitely kind of critical to try to capitalize on the next month here.”

Social justice at the Olympics

While the International Olympic Committee allows athletes to express their social justice views prior to competition and during interviews, it is prohibited during competition. “It’s a little hypocritical of the IOC to pretend that there’s a hard separation between athletes and politics, when the IOC itself is often involved in politics,” said Mattis.

Soccer for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be held at Yokohama International Stadium, seen here on Monday, July 12, 2021, in Yokohama. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
Soccer for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be held at Yokohama International Stadium, seen here on Monday, July 12, 2021, in Yokohama. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

Promoting “the spirit of Olympism, which is the spirit of equality and inclusion,” Mattis said, means “pushing politics forward…[and] to try to silence that, I think, is doing more to counter the spirit of Olympism than speaking up when you have the platform, and that opportunity to make probably the biggest difference you as an individual will be able to make in your life.”

As Mattis prepares to step on to the biggest stage of his life in Tokyo, he may not know what the future brings, but he’s still ruling out working for a big bank after the Olympics.

“I’ll go for 2024, but probably hang it up right after then,” said Mattis. “I think it’s pretty clear just being out at the Olympic trials, where it was 113 degrees in Oregon, that the climate crisis is a huge problem that needs to be addressed and marginalized people are going to be the first people left out of those conversations. So I’d like to pursue some sort of career in environmental justice...wherever I can have the biggest impact.”

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