Pandemic Perspectives: Ex-Olympian on Self-Employment and Readjusting
How COVID-19 Is Impacting Small Business Owners
The coronavirus pandemic has had an immense impact on the economy and workforce, as it has not only exacerbated a recession but led to over 57 million people in the U.S. filing for unemployment in just a five-month span leading up to Aug. 22, 2020.
Every unemployment filing, furlough, and closed business reflects a personal experience. As the statistics pile up, we’re committed to sharing stories of how COVID-19 continues to shape people’s lives and livelihoods—how they’ve coped, what they’ve learned during the crisis, and how they’re moving forward.
Among the people significantly impacted by the pandemic are those whose livelihoods depend on in-person learning—not just the hundreds of thousands of laid-off teachers, of course, but personal instructors like Kristy Kowal. An Olympic Silver Medalist, former world record-holder, and longtime elementary school teacher, Kowal transformed her passion for athletics and education into traveling the country to mentor budding swimmers, conduct workshops and clinics, and give motivational speeches. Like so many others, however, the 41-year-old, Long Beach, Calif.-based Kowal saw her business opportunities and revenue take a hit once COVID-19 began to take hold. Speaking to The Balance in July, Kowal shared her experience, including her challenges with receiving financial assistance and readjusting her career. This article has been edited for length.
What was life like for you before COVID-19?
I spent 14 years as an elementary school teacher in Reading, Pennsylvania, before I decided to shift directions and move out to California and start, more or less, a swim consulting business. I merged my teaching experience and love for working with children with my love for swimming, and merged that into a business where I travel around the country and I give swim clinics and motivational speeches.
I mentor athletes and also parents of athletes, and so before COVID-19, I was doing a lot of traveling from state to state. Then, COVID-19 hit, all pools and schools in America closed down, and essentially everything came to a halt because almost everything was in person.
It must’ve been challenging to reconfigure what you do.
Not only have I done a few swim clinics virtually where it's putting together last-minute presentations, pictures, and videos, but it really has been a complete 180 pivot to try to adapt to the new world.
One of the other things that I did during the quarantine was 10 weeks of free webinars for parents that taught how to support their athletes in these times, and additionally, when they're back and competing. So I got to bring on fellow Olympians and parents of Olympians just to give some support out there.
So with the SBA loans and the PPP available, how did that work out for you?
What happened was, as a newer resident of California—I've only lived here about a year and a half—when everything shut down, I knew that as a self-employed individual, my case would be a little bit different.
I couldn't apply for regular unemployment. So, I waited to apply for the pandemic unemployment assistance and I applied three times. I kept getting denied. I was told to apply back in Pennsylvania, where I haven't been for a year and a half, and Pennsylvania said no also.
So, I've been denied three times in two states. And so, I really was reaching a point where you have that panic of, what's going to happen? Am I going to blow through my entire life savings trying to pay for bills and pay for rent through this pandemic with no end in sight?
Did they give you any reason?
Just the bounce back and forth. I was in a situation that fell into the cracks. So, I moved here 18 months ago. I think my self-employment wasn't initiated during the qualifying period, and then I had wages in Pennsylvania from 18 months ago, but I wasn't living there during a large chunk of the qualifying period. From what I've been able to gather, I fell in the cracks just from the transition and the timing of everything.
So, finally in June, my friend who was actually in a very similar situation as I am, had told me that she applied for a loan, a PPP loan, through [small-business lending platform] Kabbage and she had success. And so, I jumped on and applied, and within one week of applying, I received confirmation that I would be receiving a loan. And I think it was two days after that that I actually had the loan.
It’s been interesting to see how PPP loans have been distributed. And you said you were denied unemployment before?
The loan really was a huge relief. I was waking up probably every day, the first thing that would cross my mind is: Get online, call the [Employment Development Department (EDD)], the unemployment office in California, and see if my application had been approved for unemployment.
I had spent months trying to call at least 10 times a day—one day, I called 400 times. And finally, I did get a call back from someone from EDD, and they told me, "You're not going to get unemployment. You're self-employed, you won't get unemployment."
I was asking about the pandemic relief, the self-employment unemployment, the federal money, and I was told to have a nice day and was hung up on. But that was actually the turning point into which I was like, "I need to find an alternate answer because I can't rely on this," and my stress level was just off the chart.
So you must be somewhat relieved now.
Well, it has given me a giant peace of mind just knowing that as a self-employed individual, it's been very stressful these last few months having minimal income and having to pay for rent and bills and with the uncertainty of when I'm going back to work.
So receiving that PPP loan, it provided me with just that sense of security that I will be able to continue to do the work that I've spent 20 years on, even when I was teaching, I was still working on this business, and wanted to ensure that when it is safe to return to do so, I will be able to.
What is life like for you at the moment? How are you navigating this pandemic?
It's just been that total shift. In the beginning of COVID-19, it’s like, OK, we're on lockdown for two weeks and then we're in lockdown for three weeks and four weeks.
When I started realizing that this was going to be more of a long-term situation, I started thinking about what opportunities are out there for me to continue doing the work I'm doing. And luckily, through CG Sports Network and Swimming World Magazine, we were able to put on weekly webinars.
Mine was dedicated more toward parent education. So using that 14 years of child development background knowledge and doing parent-teacher conferences and my knowledge of the sport, I put those two together and hosted that weekly webinar with Olympians and parents of Olympians for how to support athletes.
I originally planned to do an in-person swim clinic, and I decided it's not safe to do so yet. It's not safe to be flying and staying in a hotel. There are so many points of contact that are just unknown. And the last thing I would ever want to do is be responsible for getting someone sick just from hosting a swim clinic. So I withdrew from that and just continued to do the online work.
What have you learned as you've navigated this? How has it changed your perspective?
I think one of the things I took for granted was being able to jump into a pool. Honestly, I think I never really appreciated just what a luxury and privilege it is, but I think one of the best character traits of an athlete and a teacher is flexibility. And you cannot compete at the highest level without being flexible, or you can not teach a classroom of 30 eight-year-olds for 14 years without understanding that flexibility plays a role in everyday life.
So, I think that being flexible has been the greatest character trait that I've taken away during this time to try to figure out: What can I do instead of the in-person work that I was doing?
What are your hopes for the future and what do you look forward to?
I think my hopes for the future are, like so many people, is that we will have a vaccine sooner rather than later, and that we can return to some semblance of what we were before. But I think that the thing about this situation, it has forced us to slow down and reprioritize what's important.
And so, and I think it's challenged us in so many ways to find that when we leave this pandemic and when it's safe to return to the work that we were doing, we want to be better than we were when this started.
So, I've tried to take opportunities to grow and to learn, and I've even been auditing classes on positive psychology through Coursera. I've been trying to continue to develop, gain knowledge in different areas, and get better so that when we do return to work, I'm not the same person that I was before.
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Reuters. "U.S. schools lay off hundreds of thousands, setting up lasting harm to kids." Accessed Sept. 2, 2020.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Situation News Release." Accessed Sept. 2, 2020.