Tracy Evans, a three-time Olympian and National Champion in freestyle aerial skiing, is one of the only women in the world to have mastered both a double twisting triple backflip and a triple twisting double backflip.
But slaying it on the slopes was just the beginning. After retiring as an athlete, Evans, 48, continued to strive for success, and today considers working with her nonprofit organization, Kids Play International (KPI)—which uses sports and Olympic values to promote gender equity—to be her greatest achievement yet. In fact, Evans joins dozens of other U.S. Olympics winners who have gone on to found charitable foundations.
With the next Olympics fast approaching, she opened up to us about her own experiences on Team USA and her advice for the new generation of athletes—plus, how her charity has changed the way she looks at money and how she overcame her biggest financial regret.
When did you first begin skiing, and how did your career take off from there?
My parents had my brother and me on skis since we could stand, and my brother was on the U.S. freestyle ski team long before I was. But I had other interests [like] showing horses. That was my first love when it came to sports.
Then, partway through college, I [took] a semester off and joined the freestyle ski team in Colorado, where my brother was training. As it turned out, I excelled in aerials. I loved the acrobatic element. I was 21, which was late to get into the sport, and I knew I’d have to play catch up in order to be competitive. So I moved to Salt Lake City and slowly finished up my degree while training with my brother’s coach.
I was the only woman, alongside nine men, and training with all guys helped move me forward quickly because I was pushed a lot harder. Things progressed fast. My first year on the national team was 1991, then I went to the Olympics in ’94,’98 and ’02.
After you retired, you dove into the business and nonprofit worlds. What inspired you to start KPI?
In June 2008, I went on a volunteer trip to Malawi, Africa, and we brought a bunch of sports equipment to an orphanage. In developing countries, it’s frowned upon for girls to do sports, so when we played soccer with the kids, the girls just stood there while the boys played around them.
But something eye-opening happened when we took out softballs. None of the kids had ever picked up a bat before—they hadn’t even heard of the sport. Suddenly, the entire dynamic changed. Because they didn’t have any preconceived ideas about who should be stronger, faster or better at softball—or whether a girl should be pitching or hitting—there was an equal playing field.
At the end of the trip, a little boy named Thomas came up to say goodbye. He thanked me for showing him new sports, then said, “Now I see that a girl can play, too.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It absolutely stunned me that in less than two weeks, his attitude about girls’ capabilities shifted.
I came back thinking about how sports can shift some of the harmful gender and cultural norms and help boys and girls understand how they can both contribute. That December, I founded KPI.
Tell us about Let’s Play Fair.
KPI launched an after-school program called Let’s Play Fair [with a] mission to promote gender equity in countries that have been impacted by genocide. So we trained 13 coaches in a rural village in Rwanda about gender equality and the importance of empowering women and girls. [Guided by the coaches], kids ages 7 to 18 learn a different sport each week, while building an [emotional skill set], focused on pillars like respect, community and moral courage.
Every Sunday, we have a big community day that’s open to everyone, offering soccer games and workshops about topics like gender-based violence and public health. So even though the 130 kids in KPI are the nucleus, our reach expands outward.
Has your work with KPI shifted your own money views?
I see how much excess we have in our lives here. Even if I never made another penny, I would still have so much more than the folks over there could hope for.
I am a true believer that less is more. It’s not about all the things you have but the quality of life.
How do the qualities that drove your success in skiing come into play now?
I learned far more from my failures in sports—from my bad competitions and injuries—than from winning. I was always focused on how I could improve, and I have that same mentality with work. Whether it’s my for-profit company [a casting company for sports-related talent] or my nonprofit, I always look for what needs to be done better.
What financial advice would you give people in their 20s and 30s?
It’s hugely important to start putting money away at an early age—in a savings account, a 401(k) or a Roth IRA. Being self-employed, I didn’t have a 401(k), so I opened a Roth IRA. But I did so way too late. [Now, I wonder], what was I thinking? Why didn’t I do it earlier?
Millennials should also sit down and ask themselves what is a need versus a want. Do you really need to have the newest iPhone, or is your phone right now okay? Be very conscious about where your money is going because it’s easy to spend frivolously—to get sucked into what’s cool to have.
What was your biggest financial mistake?
Although I had a very supportive family who could afford to pay for my skiing career, I wanted to do it on my own—so I ran up my credit cards.
A lot of people think that the Olympics are the only competition for certain sports, but many, like skiing, have a World Cup circuit that you travel on. Often, especially if you’re coming up in the ranks, you have to fund your entire season—airline tickets, food, accommodations, training and equipment—if you don’t have sponsors. [Later, I learned that] because a ski career is like a business venture, I could have taken out a bank loan at a low interest rate instead of using a credit card with a high interest rate.
Credit cards are such an easy way to rack up debt. As a recovered credit card abuser, I can say that it is an abyss. If you do use them, pay them off every month so you aren’t wasting money on interest. If you don’t think that you can pay off a certain charge, you shouldn’t be buying it.
How did you dig your way out of debt?
My father gave me a loan, and I paid a little bit back every month at a reasonable interest rate. It took time, but it was a cost I could afford.
What do you consider your greatest investment?
Without a doubt, it is investing in KPI’s kids and coaches. The community has come so far in terms of shifting their ideas and challenging their gender and cultural norms. It has absolutely been the best investment of my time, money, emotions—everything.