Seth Wescott knows what it’s like to depend on someone else. He remembers how difficult it was to get started in a sport, snowboarding, that wasn’t considered traditional, even on the mountain.
So Wescott’s trying to make sure no one else goes without the financial resources to compete in their chosen sport. The two-time Olympic gold medal snowboardcross winner from Carrabassett Valley is Maine’s ambassador for the Level Field Fund, a nonprofit program that provides grants to athletes in need of financial assistance.
“There were definitely some tough years for me, now that I look back on it,” said Wescott. “In each of those early four to five years, if I had had the (financial) ability to go to certain events, it would have made the jump to the world stage go quicker. It was something I experienced for a long time.
“There were a bunch of years when I was taking a Greyhound bus back and forth across the country. It was a seven-day adventure and it was tough to compete against other athletes who were flying when you were getting off a bus after seven days. Being able to make that entire process easier for these kids, helping them make that next step, is the goal of Level Field.”
Creating a level field
The Level Field Fund began as the Ross Powers Foundation in 2000, when Powers, a two-time Olympic snowboard medalist (including gold in 2002) began offering financial aid to Vermont snowboarders.
After several years, Powers wanted to help more than just winter sports athletes. So Peter Carlisle, the managing director of Octagon Olympic and Action Sports in Saco, helped establish the Level Field Fund.
Carlisle pulled in clients from other sports, such as swimming’s Michael Phelps and skiing’s Daron Rahlves, to expand the fund’s scope, enabling it to help more athletes in more sports.
“Often, there is a (financial) gap,” said Carlisle, who is also Powers’ agent. “This fund says, ‘If you have the talent, we can help you bridge that gap.'”
According to Carlisle, Level Field has helped more than 250 athletes since it began. In the past year, 78 grants were awarded to 49 athletes in five sports — snowboarding, skeleton, downhill skiing, judo and swimming — totaling $225,000.
Carlisle said the average grant is about $3,000 annually. Some can be as small as $500, others as large as $20,000. Grants can be awarded to individuals for three years.
“Then you’re over the gap,” said Carlisle. “You’ve either qualified for a national team or you’ve picked up some sponsorships and you can support yourself. You’re not disadvantaged anymore.”
The money primarily is for travel and accommodations, though it can also be used for training purposes.
Funding Maine athletes
This year, two Maine athletes received Level Field grants: mogul skier Alison DiGravio of Farmington and snowboarder Alex Tuttle of Stratton.
Both are considered among the best young athletes in their sports. Both also say they couldn’t continue without this help.
“With all the expenses I have for the season, it wouldn’t have been possible to make that much money,” said DiGravio, 20, who finished fourth in the 2011 national mogul skiing championship and is on the U.S. Development Team.
DiGravio, who graduated from Carrabassett Valley Academy two years ago, lives at home with her parents in the off-season and paints houses around Sugarloaf in the summer to earn money. The $2,500 grant she received will help her compete in eight NorAm events this year.
“Both my older brothers (Don and David) competed at a high level,” she said. “Even with help from other people, they were not able to do all the training that they probably should have been doing.”
Tuttle works in construction with his father in the off-season, trying to save enough money to compete. That takes away from important off-season training. The $5,000 grant he received will cover his travel on the World Cup circuit.
“It was coming to a point where I was going to have to make a choice,” said Tuttle, 21, who is hoping to earn a spot on the U.S. national snowboard team this year.
“I was either going to have to take out loans to cover my expenses or I was going to have to stop. Then Seth told me about the Level Field Fund. And they’ve filled that gap.”
Seeing the results
Wescott is Tuttle’s mentor. In fact, both are now at the Telluride Ski Resort in Colorado, training for the first World Cup event of the season. Powers is also there. And, he said, it’s pretty cool to see that the Level Field Fund really helps.
“Just seeing the next generation of riders coming up is great,” said Powers in a phone interview from Telluride. “I always like to help younger riders make their dreams come true. But it is kind of funny where you’re supporting the guys that you’re racing against.”
And losing to them.
In a time trial on Monday, Tuttle had a better run than Powers, finishing in 19.10 seconds to Powers’ 19.13.
Tuttle is simply relieved that he doesn’t have to worry about funding for now.
“It’s a huge, gigantic weight off my shoulders,” he said. “The stress of that is actually greater to me than the stress of competing.”
And that’s what the Level Field Fund is about, according to Powers, who remembers the support he received while growing up on Bromley Mountain in Vermont with his mother, who worked in the resort cafeteria.
“It’s very important to me to help,” said Powers. “I had a great career, a lot of good times, all with the support of people helping me along the way. I like to give back and see these athletes have the same chance.”
Wescott sees great promise in Tuttle, who finished third in the junior world championships last year and placed eighth and 13th in two World Cup races.
“The goal he and I have set for him this year is to make the national team,” said Wescott. “We feel he’s right there.”
Wescott said it’s important to remember what these athletes are going through as they try to ascend to the national team. Unlike traditional sports, where high school athletes can continue to play in college, the “fringe” winter sports athletes don’t get scholarships. They have to pay their own way.
And to reach the highest levels, snowboarders or skiers have to not only travel across the U.S., but the world.
“It’s pretty different when an 18-year-old kid has to book a flight to Europe and doesn’t even know where he or she’s going,” said Wescott.
The Level Field Fund is managed by Octagon, one of the leading marketing firms in the nation for Olympic and action sports. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including the founding partner, OrthoLite, a supplier of foam insoles. Powers, as president, provides assistance through several fundraisers, as do the other ambassadors: Phelps, Wescott, Rahlves and swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg.
Wescott holds an annual golf tournament at Sugarloaf, with the proceeds going to Level Fund.
Donations can be made through the fund’s website: www.levelfieldfund.org.
“I feel this type of stuff (like the Level Field Fund) is extremely necessary to help these kids,” he said. “Their dreams shouldn’t be discounted because they picked a different thing to be passionate about.”