Tuck offers business training program for retired Olympians
The USOC and Tuck partnered up for this spring’s Next Step program.
Cross country skier Kikkan Randall started down the path to the Olympics when she was still in high school — a path that led her, along with teammate Jessie Diggins, to become the first American women to win a medal in cross country skiing when they took gold in the team sprint in 2018. The payoff is spectacular, but such a path requires high-performing athletes to make sacrifices.
“To be a skier at that level, I kind of learned the hard way that it’s hard to fit in too much else,” Randall said. “When I was young, I was trying to work a part-time job, go to school and train, and that proved to be too much … So, I decided to take a chance and just focus on training.”
After committing so much time and energy to training and competing at an early age, many Olympians like Randall face a daunting transition into the workforce once their athletic careers end. Many of them have planned a future around their chosen sport since adolescence and fear they have fallen behind their peers, who were able to develop professional skills and gain work experience while Olympic athletes trained for world championships.
The Tuck School of Business offers some of these athletes — in addition to other participants — an opportunity to jump-start their new careers.
The board of the USOC put together a group in 2012 that has since grown into the Athlete Career Education Program. The ACE program provides current and former athletes with services such as career counseling, tuition grants and courses in networking and financial literacy for athletes who forewent undergraduate degrees for the sake of training. As ACE continued to look for new ways to help Olympians reintegrate into the workforce, Tuck was also looking for participants for a developing program now called Next Step.
Next Step was originally conceived of as a broad foundational course in business acumen geared toward U.S. veterans, according to Next Step program director Margaux Lohry. However, she explained that the United States Department of Veterans Affairs requires any program seeking funding under the GI bill to have at least one-fifth of participants be non-military. According to Lohry, athletes immediately rose to the forefront of potential candidates for the program, and after some deliberation, the partnership between the USOC and Tuck was born.
Lohry sees parallels between high-performing athletes and veterans that she said make this match particularly successful. Teamwork, meeting challenges, reacting well under stress: veterans and Olympians share all of these skills, though they develop them under drastically different circumstances for each, per Lohry.
“There is also the common thread of representing your country, which is something that’s very special,” Lohry said. “That pride of country and serving a higher purpose than yourself and a set of ideals is something that is also shared between those two groups.”
Randall, an alumna of the 2019 program that ended under two weeks ago, initially saw it as an opportunity to develop a portfolio of professional skills and work with a group of high-level athletes like herself. She was unsure of what the integration with veterans would be like and did not consider it in her initial assessment of the course’s appeal. It was not long into the intensive two-week course that she realized her oversight.
“Once I arrived and started hearing stories from some of these military veterans, it was quickly apparent how similar our paths are,” Randall said. “We’re so involved in this certain way of life, this certain career, but ultimately it has a timeline. So, at some point you’re done, but you’re young; you still have this whole life ahead of you. So, then you have to pivot and transition that really unique experience into something new.”
The Next Step curriculum helps elite athletes and veterans alike make their transitions, providing a broad overview of many aspects of business and career building. The two-week program also hosts professionals from around the country for participants to interact with while gaining professional exposure. Among the central goals of the program is to give the “Next Steppers,” as they call themselves, the space and the support to envision their new futures, one outside of the highly-specialized world in which they lived previously.
That is not to say that Olympians such as Randall lack skills that are applicable to more conventional professions. Work ethic, dedication and drive are all critical components of success in any field. Another goal of Next Step, according to Randall, is to teach participants how to distill their technical skills, however specialized they may seem, down to their essence; while a record-breaking mile time might not seem relevant to a job at Goldman Sachs, the years of thorough planning and diligence behind that achievement certainly are relevant. Randall realized she and other athletes possess some of these core strengths through a resume workshop they participated in.
“I think the advantage that a lot of us have is that we have these really great fundamental skills and qualities that we could come into a business, and [Next Step] could teach us the specific part,” Randall said. “The power of this program is really just to help me describe why I would make a good employee, why I would make a good leader at a company, even though I don’t have even an [undergraduate degree] — I have three-quarters of one.”
According to ACE director Leslie Klein, the proportions of Olympians who finish or start an undergraduate degree varies dramatically from sport to sport. Athletes who play sports that are in the National Collegiate Athletic Association — such as swimming, volleyball or track and field — are usually able to get a scholarship to compete at a university. Kayakers, figure skaters and freestyle skiers, on the other hand, typically do not have the opportunity for recruitment or scholarship. Consequently, many choose to forgo an undergraduate degree in favor of pursuing their sport.
Next Step places no specific requirements on education levels for applicants, according to its website. As long as they fit within Next Step’s military or elite-athlete categorizations, Tuck’s priority in choosing participants is simply whether or not they are in a position to get the most out of the program. Additionally, the price of Next Step is underwritten by Tuck and outside donors in the interest of keeping it accessible to veterans and high-level athletes from a variety of backgrounds. An individual participant’s fee is also determined by their adjusted gross income, and financial aid is available.
Alumni of Next Step have gone on to work with Visa, Facebook, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, with a number of them receiving job offers within six months of completing the program, according to Lohry. Randall herself had already started motivational speaking during her skiing career and was elected to the International Olympic Committee, representing fellow athletes on the athlete commission. The latter position involves a fair amount of management and cross-cultural work, areas of expertise Randall felt she had little exposure to prior to completing Next Step.
Randall has also begun selling socks emblazoned with the message “It’s going to be OK!” after she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. During their “Shark Tank” night in the program, Randall pitched this sock line, and she credits Next Step with providing her with insight and skills that will allow her to develop her business.
Since the program ended two weeks ago, Randall said her group chat is still very active and full of excitement over the opportunity athletes and veterans see in their newly envisioned futures.
Correction appended (April 29, 2019): This article has been updated to clarify that Tuck offers the Next Step program to USOC athletes, and not that Tuck and USOC formed the program together.