Interviews by Rebecca Parsons

As kids, many of us can admit to dreaming of becoming a professional athlete. But when the reality of adulthood sank in, most of us turned to pining over those living out our dreams through social media and web stories. But does being a professional athlete truly mean traveling the world, competing and chasing waves for days on end? Or is there more to it?

We caught up with five of the top athletes in the sport and asked them if being a pro is truly everything it's chalked up to be and more importantly, how they make it work financially. You may be surprised by what they had to say. –RP

Shae Foudy

It is definitely a challenge to fit in work, training and school into my schedule but I make it happen and I wouldn't have it any other way. I have to admit it is sometimes very challenging financially and I end up paying for a lot of my travels and expenses out of pocket.

Not only do I go to school full-time during fall and spring but I also nanny part-time during the school year and work full-time during the summer as a summer camp counselor. Life is definitely about balance for me! Although it is definitely not a dream life and a lot of work, I love what I do. I work hard in every aspect of my life and I am very lucky to have the opportunity and ability to do so.

Mo Freitas

Traveling full-time competing in SUP races/surf events is exhausting! A lot of the time we have to travel with a 14-foot board—that isn't the easiest/cheapest thing to do. I usually fly Delta and it's $150 for a board bag and I usually have two board bags! I try to plan ahead and plan with other athletes to make it work out and split costs.  Luckily, I do have a few sponsors that help with a lot of my travel expenses.

Mo works construction with his pops.

I also have a side job when I am home—I help my pops with construction. I love learning how to do physical work. Knowing how to do wood work, mechanics, and household stuff is a great deal; you save a lot of money doing it yourself! Eventually, I'd like to go to school, I can't pick up wood my whole life. Recently, I've been doing clinics while traveling, which helps with some of the expenses. I'm under contract for the next three years so we'll see what the plan is after that.

April Zilg

This year it was not financially feasible. I was receiving travel assistance from a sponsor before and this year that stopped. You may have noticed that I haven’t flown to any races and I drove out to Carolina Cup and lived in my van for the month. I’ve always worked at Carolina Paddleboard Co. doing sales, rentals, and marketing but I moved to California so I’m in between jobs. Which means even less funds for travel than before. Not to mention the stress of finding another really cool place to work that’s okay with you taking off for a month or two to race.

April with her co-workers at the Carolina Paddleboard Co. She has since moved out west.

I’m currently looking for sponsors to help out and I’m also looking for a job (or many small jobs) so I can travel and race. Maybe if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that 'I’m valuable' to the industry or my content is good, I’d have enough nickels to go to an event! I’m very optimistic for 2019, though!

Travis Grant

A lot of people from the outside think we are all professional athletes. There are some full-time professional SUP athletes but not many. I personally work full-time. I paddle before or after work—I've done it that way my whole life.  Now I've even stepped into coaching more and am enjoying that just as much.

Each year, I negotiate with some sponsors to figure out what events will benefit us both. Everyone has budgets but sometimes you have to get creative in order to fill your duties and also do the events you really want to do. If there's a will there's a way. I treat my sponsorship money like it's my hard earned money because it is. I try and find good flight deals, be organized and book early, stay with friends or book a room with a group, car pool, etc. Even for the sponsored guys it's not easy—the budgets are not that big. If more people did SUP or watched SUP they might be, but at the moment SUP is still a very niche sport.

Natali Zollinger

This specifically hits home to me because I couldn’t afford to compete this year due to my finances. It’s really financially exhausting for me to travel. At the high point of my career as a whitewater paddler, I earned about $4,000 cash between the small collective group of sponsors I had, plus all the newest and hottest gear to compete with. With all of my bills and travel expenses, it still put me in a lot of debt. So much debt that I had to pull back the last two years from competing to pay it all back.

Zollinger makes ends meet through various side jobs including working at the 98 Center Restaurant. Photo: Heather Jackson

The most important season to train is the winter/spring to set yourself up physically for a strong competitive season. But I work in a seasonal town and that's our busy season. So to have to work 40+ hours a week to pay my debt back and to save money for the next season, I hardly had energy to train. I actually never really felt 100% prepared or confident in my physical body and state for any of the seasons I competed in as a professional athlete. I tried to fit in as much as I could, when I could, but it still wasn’t what I had hoped for in committing to being a professional athlete. I always felt like I had to have one foot in the athlete world and one foot in my other world.

Dave Boehne

At Infinity, we have a team and it's not cheap, that's for sure. Fortunately, I do most of the marketing and design so a lot of that entails being on the water, going to events, and doing the fun stuff. For instance, in New York, I went and competed but I also filmed, dropped some edits, and shot photos—I just try to balance the best I can. I get to write it off because it is work; in a sense I guess I kind of sponsor myself.

SUP is in a unique position. There are a lot of action sports that are supported by other things like clothing companies, drink companies, shoe companies or whatever it may be, but SUP is really only supported by the board companies. So all the burden's on the board guys and without the boards there's no industry. It's no secret that the boards have much smaller margins as far as making money than a clothing or drink company does, so that's the challenge I have as a brand. Most people think these guys are making a bunch of money, everything's free, they're doing whatever they want but it simply isn't the case—it's only the top, top guys that are making any real money.

Tyler Bashor

Trips, equipment, and such are pretty expensive. I get quite a bit of help from my sponsors and my parents have helped me a lot with this aspect of SUP. Paddling, cross training, and school take up a large amount of my time during the winter months and in the summer, trips for racing as well as the time it takes to train make it difficult to create a schedule that is open enough to get a job.

Related 

Casper Steinfath’s unlikely road to SUP stardom.

SUP pros’ guide to morning nutrition.