John Teller: From auto repair shop to the Winter Olympics

The lone American skicross athlete is one of a handful of working-class Olympians who can’t train, compete full time

Despite a full-time job as an auto mechanic, John Teller, right, has earned his share of skicross success.
Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

SOCHI, Russia — Making a Winter Olympic team is not a poor man’s endeavor. Lift tickets can exceed $100 a day, bobsled runners carry a four-digit price tag, and booking private ice-rink time can quickly turn a ledger red. And that’s not including transoceanic flights and lodging to compete internationally.

Successful halfpipe snowboarders often draw lucrative contracts that allow them to train full time, year round. NHL players’ pay stubs have plenty of digits before the decimal. Other athletes rely on their parents’ bankrolls. But some U.S. Winter Olympians support their athletic careers with regular full-time jobs.

“There are a handful of us,” said John Teller, and they tend to congregate in certain sports.

The U.S. Olympic curling team includes a junior high school science teacher, a restaurant manager and a physician’s assistant. A half-dozen U.S. Olympic bobsledders and lugers are in the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program. 

U.S. Olympic skicross athlete John Teller.
Harry How/Getty Images

Teller, the lone American entry in Thursday’s skicross, is a mechanic in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., when he’s not barreling down banked turns and over kickers and gaps while jostling with three other athletes to win multiple heats en route to gold.

“There are pros and cons, for sure,” he said of working under cars 40 hours a week and skiing 150 days a year. “The biggest thing for me” is sacrificing training sessions. This fall, with a child on the way, Teller was saving to buy a house, so instead of seizing a rare opportunity to train head to head against elite competitors, he stayed in his mechanic's jumpsuit.

The plight is not much easier on the road. When Teller is away, someone must cover his shifts. So while he’s competing in Sochi, his uncle Mike will be doing tune-ups 12 time zones away.

Then there’s the budget.

Teller has one wax technician during the season, but he can’t afford a full-time coach.

After 20 years of racing, a stint on the U.S. alpine development team and being the unofficial first alternate for the inaugural Olympic skicross team in 2010, he has learned that “as an athlete, you’re your own best coach. I just have to trust the skills I know, focus on that and not cloud my mind with what other people are doing.”

That can be difficult, he said, “but it also lets me know when I’m winning World Cups that I’m doing the right thing. It’s a little more gratifying knowing that it’s all me.”

The family trade

In 2011, Teller became the first American to win a World Cup skicross event. In 2013 he captured a world championship bronze medal.

“Talent is a huge part of what’s gotten me here,” he acknowledged, but his work ethic really was really born in his family’s garage.

At 15, his father, grandfather and uncle taught him the family trade.

“I love fixing cars and solving problems,” he said, but “it’s a stressful job because I have people’s lives in my hands when they’re driving their children and families. That’s something I take very serious.” Ultimately, though, there are no Olympics for auto repair, and the bearded, blue-eyed Californian said, “If I have one talent — one thing that is John Teller — it is my skiing.

“Coaches I’ve had love my style. Other athletes tell me they love how I ski. I’m a clean skier. I have a lot of finesse. That’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. That means a lot to me. It really does.”

Yet he was burned out on alpine racing in 2006 and quit the sport for a year and a half. Discovering skicross rejuvenated his interest and, once again, he became a man with two careers.

“Skicross, I feel, was built for me,” he said, “the jumping, the speed and the close-quarter battling.” But skicross also has a high luck factor, and Teller isn’t saying whether he’ll work overtime to make it through another four-year Olympic cycle.

Impending fatherhood and the grind of double duty has him wondering, at 30, how long his prime will last.

“It’s not the age,” the mechanic said, “but the mileage.”

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Sochi 2014

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