Pyeongchang, South Korea • Jonathan Cheever’s truck is parked at the Crandall Ford dealership in Park City. It’s been there for so long that he can’t remember the last time he started the engine. In the back is stuff. His stuff. Not everything, but plenty. There’s more stuff in a storage unit he has in town.
More stuff in his hometown of Saugus, Mass., too. He’ll re-evaluate what he’ll do with everything in the spring, where it might end up or whether his possessions will stay where they are now, scattered around the country.
Right now he’s here, in the rugged mountains on the east side of this country where Thursday morning he’ll toe his snowboard to the line and wait for a gate to fling wide open. As of Jan. 22, he didn’t even have a flight booked to the Olympics, although his spot was guaranteed after 12 years racing for the U.S.
Cheever, now 32, spent over a third of his life trying to outmuscle, outmaneuver and outrace the competition to the bottom of the line. In snowboardcross, it’s who’s fastest on the day, who can pump through the rolling sections of the course, who can avoid getting tangled up in a crowd and face-planting at speeds as fast as 70 mph.
Cheever is Team USA to the bone because he exemplifies the relentless workmanship put in to get himself to this point. He is the personification of what the Olympics are, a man who, for more than a decade, refused to stop when he probably should’ve many times over. When the credit-card debt neared $70,000, piling up on Visas and Mastercards, he kept going. At one point, he was the No. 1 racer in the world, the owner of the yellow jersey, but injuries and inconsistent racing compounded.
The lack of funding and uncertainty of the lifestyle used to eat at him. Every race was his Olympics. Bills were in the back of his mind as he zipped down a course, thinking if he managed a podium in Bulgaria or Turkey or Argentina, it’d make just a little dent. He doesn’t do that anymore. The frustration clouded his perspective on the most important of days — race days.
“I was pissed,” he said, “all the time.”
“I’m just having fun, loving it,” he said, “and it’s working great for me.”
He recently was featured on HBO’s “Real Sports” hosted by Bryant Gumbel. The piece highlighted how the United States Olympic Committee takes in more than $2 billion a year in revenue, but Olympians with aspirations like Cheever essentially have to find their own means, pave their own way. During his interview on HBO, Cheever estimated he spent $30,000 out of pocket last year to fund his trainings and World Cup season.
So Cheever, who has lived off and on in Park City since 2004, tapped into his roots. He’s a part-time plumber, a handyman extraordinaire, who always must answer the phone if he wants the money. When he’s home in the greater Boston area, he’ll take on jobs with his father, Mark. When he’s in Utah, he’ll install water heaters or take on a bathroom remodel and not think twice. If a fellow U.S. athlete around Park City needs something, they know whom to call. His business name also is his Twitter and Instagram accounts: Team Cheever.
“Everyone knows I’m a plumber,” he said.
Luke Bodensteiner, an executive with U.S. Ski & Snowboard, phoned when he needed a water softener installed. He had to drop off a bunch of buddies on Park City’s Main Street one night when he got the call that the job for the evening was a new water heater.
“As always, it would be I’m in town for three nights and have 50 hours of work and trying to balance that,” he said. “It’s kind of feast or famine sometimes.”
The industry that helped raise him also has come to his aid.
Cheever is the only Olympian whose sponsors range from a water-heater supplier to a mortgage company out of Massachusetts to American Standard. Yes, the company that sells and distributes toilets. Stickers are plastered across the front of his helmet and his snowboard.
“That was just a shoo-in,” said Cheever’s longtime friend and now agent, Sho Kashima. “That was pretty easy.”
Mention plumbing and Cheever basically interrupts before you can finish. He does not hesitate in his trademark Boston accent. The snowboard industry always will keep the Shaun Whites and Chloe Kims of the world out in front. Cheever learned that the hard way early in his career. It’s not everyone who is as lucky or successful or as marketable or sustainable.
“Proud of everything,” he said. “Proud if I’m racing snowboards or proud if I’m putting in a water heater or toilet. I’m pumped to make sure the customer’s happy and my work looks great. Now to have these companies support me is awesome.”
The U.S. men’s snowboardcross team is a stacked group, too.
Cheever’s third-place finish in a World Cup in Argentina last September was unexpected to everyone but him. It basically secured his spot on the Olympic team. He made it over U.S. names like legend Nate Holland and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Alex Deibold.
“Cheever got it done right away,” U.S. coach Peter Foley said.
More than a dozen years after telling his folks he wanted to drop out of college and move West to Utah to pursue life as a professional snowboarder, it all finally hit for Cheever the night of the Opening Ceremony at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. Working for his dad, for himself, those nights bartending in Park City, working for Home Depot as a subcontractor, driving from Las Vegas to Preston, Idaho, it all was worth it.
“Everyone’s got the ability to go elsewhere to go and find support,” Kashima said. “His story … no one does it like he does.”
He doesn’t know when he’ll make it back to Park City. Home base — if you can call it that — is Vienna, Austria, these days. His wife, Maria, is a former Austrian snowboarder. She now works for a management consulting firm in Vienna but travels so much that they’re lucky to cross paths. For now, he’s living out of two snowboard bags, a duffel bag and a backpack.
“I understand what life balance is,” he said, “but I don’t have much at the moment.”
Whatever happens on the course in Pyeongchang, Cheever will have to decide what comes next. Keep racing, keep this self-sustaining lifestyle or finally turn and face the tens of thousands of dollars of credit-card debt compiled in the hopes of one day getting to South Korea. He’ll eventually have to come pick up his truck, too.
He’s hoping the thing will start.