You’ve probably heard of Kerri Strug. If you haven’t, you know the story of her vault at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta: Strug, then 18, injured her ankle badly on her first vault, then performed her second vault anyway, and landed it perfectly, winning the U.S. a gold medal. The 1996 women’s gymnastics squad has been nicknamed the Magnificent Seven.
That was 20 years ago now. But Strug, who strikes new corporate sponsorship deals every four years tied to the Summer Games, stands as an example of the rare athlete who has successfully used a short athletic career to build a lifelong revenue stream.
“I was very fortunate that I had a lasting Olympic moment,” she tells Yahoo Finance, “and I tried to take what I got out of that vault and implement it into the next phase of my life. Clearly, the Olympics changed the trajectory of my life.” It wasn’t just her own vault that has helped her continue to find new business opportunities, she reasons, but the effect of the entire moment: “I think [it was] the way we won the Olympic team gold, and that it was the first ever U.S. women’s gymnastics team gold, and that it was pretty dramatic how things came down to that final vault.”
The vast majority of Olympic athletes don’t make the kind of money most fans would expect. Many have to scrimp and save just to be able to fly their families out to watch them compete at the Olympics. They train and toil for years without a big salary if they aren’t in a team sport that has a regular season. Big endorsement deals like the ones Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Lindsey Vonn get are rare.
In a recent ESPN the Magazine poll of Olympians, the average answer for “How much money do you make in an average year” was $295,184. Only 7% said they make more than $500,000—not the pro athlete riches you’d imagine.
Strug, on the other hand, has kept the momentum going. She has represented brands as different as Visa, Epson, KT Tape, and Zaxby’s chicken chain, and this month she’s a spokesperson for a "miracle links" necklace (it "represents the bond between mother and child") at Jared Jewelers. How does she approach these deals? “I think it depends on the phase of life that you’re in,” she says. “You want to go with companies that you believe in and that fit your lifestyle.” Strug, at the moment, is a young mother, so she says she gravitates toward products that young mothers use. “This will be the first Olympics I’m going to watch with my son Tyler, who is 4, and I’m hoping there will be some amazing stories I can show him and share with him, and that it will lead him to be a better person in his life,” she says.
Strug also offered her opinion on recent fears over the Zika virus in Brazil, where this year’s Summer Games will be held, along with less health-related concerns that the site will not be fully ready in time. She says the athletes likely don’t give such things any thought. “You cannot control whether the venues are completed, or if there’s a virus, or what,” she says. All you can control is your performance. And you’ve worked years to get here and you have one shot.” (That same ESPN poll would appear to back her up: 99% of current Olympic athletes said they have never considered not going to Rio because of Zika, though that figure may look high.)
As for this year’s U.S. women’s gymnastics squad? Strug has extremely high hopes. “They’re more fit and mentally tough than ever,” she says. “I’m anticipating them dominating the field and bringing home many, many medals.”
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Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.