For Saugus-born snowboarder Jonathan Cheever, there is no off-season. And while that sounds a lot like a Gatorade tagline, Cheever’s balancing act of professional snowboardcross competition and plunging pipes as a plumber—the former a career driven by passion, pragmatism, and a set of Olympian abs that would make even Hugh Jackman blush—is a necessary lifestyle, not a marketing campaign.
“Snowboarding, for most people, is not lucrative,” Cheever says on a crackling Skype call from Austria, where he is currently in preseason with the SBX B Team, a division of the U.S. Snowboarding squad. Our connection drops a couple times because of shoddy service, and he messages to say that I should call his cell. “It’s only 20 cents a minute.”
When we reconnect, he says he’s in the red.
“I had [an] injury in 2012—I ruptured my Achilles,” says Cheever. “Before that I was consistently top five in the world, and the media sponsorship dollars I was getting were at least keeping me even, but since then I’ve racked up quite a bit of credit card debt. I am paying my bills on time, but it’s usually the minimum.”
In 2011, the year before his injury, Cheever walked away from the World Cup in Park City, Utah—he drops the “r” when he mentions Park City, further revealing his Boston-area roots—with a yellow jersey, meaning he was number one in the world at snowboardcross (also known as boardercross, boarderX, or SBX), a fiercely competitive downhill speed race in which top dogs are separated by mere fractions of a second. Since his debut in 2006, when he joined the US team, he’s racked up over 50 World Cup starts, four podiums, 16 top-ten finishes, and the aforementioned world championship, in addition to which he was an unofficial alternate for the 2014 Sochi Olympic team. But the credentials don’t amount to much financially. For every Shaun White, there are dozens of Olympic hopefuls who are crippled with travelling and competition costs, as the United States, unlike most countries in the world, does not provide government support for competitors. For Cheever, who is “not in the four-year cycle like a lot of athletes,” whether he has Olympics on the horizon or not, that means he feels the pressure four-fold.
“Ten or 15 years ago, the talented guys could get off the couch and win the Olympics,” he says. “Now, it’s a discipline. You have to be a master of the trade in order to excel in this. It is a real competitive sport.”
Now 29, and three years out from the rupture, Cheever says he’s in “the prime of my career” and hopeful for what the World Cup on December 5 reveals of his current ranking. He lays the options on the table: “I quit snowboarding and start turning wrenches for a while and get myself out of debt, or chase this dream, hopefully win a couple of events, and [get] out of the red. I figure I am only in this good of shape once so I might as well do it while I can. I can always put toilets in later.”
When Cheever talks about Boston, a city where he says he is “deeply rooted,” he reflects on the sports teams. “That was my dream growing up,” he says, “to play for the Red Sox or the Bruins, but then I found snowboarding and never turned back.” That’s when his parents told him to find a back-up plan. While Cheever didn’t complete the engineering degree he began working toward at UMass Lowell, he became a licensed plumber after a stint at Northeast Vocational Tech in Wakefield in 2004, thus entering into the family business—his father owns a heating and plumbing outfit in Saugus. (The only pro rider with a sponsorship from Bradford White Water Heaters, Cheever’s even managed to leverage trade connections for his hill hustle.)
While Cheever isn’t ready to commit to porcelain pipework year-round, he returned to Massachusetts this summer to help his father. When he met up with the team in Park City this September, he continued to clock in two-to-three days a week amid rigorous practices and workouts—“the kind that’ll make you throw up”—before shipping off to Austria in mid-October.
“I’m not saying plumbing is my passion, but I work hard at it, and I am passionate about everything I do,” Cheever says matter of factly. “If I wanted to keep my head above water, it would be necessary to do it full-time, but that would mean sacrificing my snowboard career too much to be competitive.”
In a new documentary by Brett Weiss Saunders, SBX The Movie, featuring and produced by Cheever, his mother says, “If you have a dream, you should follow it” (And credit card debt be damned, he intends to). The film, which saw its world premiere in New York City last month and will hit the festival circuit this winter, also features testimonials from other international boardercross champs including Maria Ramberger, Seth Wescott, Alexandra Jekova, David Speiser, Nate Holland, and Hagen Kearney, and illustrates what drives people to a sport in which, according the synopsis, “high-risk of injury is rewarded with such little potential prize money.”
“Nobody in my sport came to snowboarding because their parents pushed them into snowboarding,” Cheever says. “Everybody chose to do that. And more so, you have all of these characters that come from different countries, different religious beliefs, political backgrounds, different age groups—they’re all united by snowboarding.
He continues: “There’s not much glory. There sure as hell is not much money in it. And every event we go to, someone crashes and ends their season. We’ve had a bunch of people that have ended their careers, and we’ve even had events where people crashed hard enough to die. But there’s still this pursuit of being the fastest one down the hill, and we want to show this is why we do this. This is what we love to do and it’s a lot more than standing on a podium with a medal around your neck.”
Cheever concedes, of course, that an Olympic medal does have a little something to do with it, but his desire is more nuanced than that. And while he claims he would want to win a medal for the states, he’s not the type to let national pride stand in the way of a wise financial windfall or career-altering opportunity. Cheever gives the example of Vic Wild, his former roommate.
“He was on the U.S. snowboard team for a different discipline, and he was getting almost zero support [from the US Ski and Snowboard Association], even less than I’m getting, and he married a Russian girl and won two gold medals for Russia at the last Olympics. He didn’t go to be a tourist; he went because they were giving him the best opportunity. When I mention to people, ‘Hey, I’d like to snowboard for someone else that would like to offer more support,’ some people say, ‘Oh, how could you think to abandon your country like that?’ And it has nothing to do with being American. If some other country told me, ‘We think you can win’ and wanted to give me all the tools to do it, I’d probably have to consider it.”