Katherine Reutter celebrates winning the short track speedskating 1,000-meter silver medal at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 at Pacific Coliseum on Feb. 26, 2010 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Katherine Reutter is back, she’s happy and she’s happy she’s on the short track again as the calendar turns toward PyeongChang.
While there are world cup qualifications, world cups and Olympic trials along the way, those are merely checkpoints for the two-time Olympic medalist in short track speedskating at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010.
Following three surgeries, constant pain and a retirement in 2013 at the age of 24, the one-time U.S. queen of the short track is redefining herself as the “Comeback Queen” after returning to competition last year in hopes of making the grade for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang.
Less than six months from the 2018 Winter Games, the 29-year-old Reutter is in Kearns, Utah, to take part in the weekend’s Fall World Cup Qualifier that will determine the U.S. world cup teams and provide a glimpse of the potential 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
While the pain in her hips and back faded away, her passion for competition never wavered. As she was wrapping up a degree in small business and entrepreneurship, the comeback idea proved ever-present.
“I was close to being done with school, and the worst-case scenario is I’d have a lot of fun training, getting a college degree and moving on, and the best case was making the Olympic team and getting a college degree,” said Reutter, who lives and trains in Milwaukee, Wisconsin after coaching there for three years. “It’s a perfect way to prepare for life after skating.”
Reutter launched her comeback last year and earned a spot on the U.S. world cup team. She won gold in the 1,500 and 3,000, silver in the 1,000, and placed second overall at the U.S. championships to earn an individual spot on the world championship team.
She also finished fifth in the 1,500 at the Calgary World Cup, and fifth in the 1,000 and sixth in the 1,500 at the Salt Lake City World Cup before suffering a concussion during a training crash that derailed the rest of her season. She got back into full time training in July and is looking forward to this week.
A native of Champaign, Illinois, the then-21-year-old Reutter won a silver medal in the 1,000-meter and a bronze medal in the 3,000-meter relay at the 2010 Winter Games. She followed that up — despite offseason hip surgery — with a near unprecedented performance at the 2011 world championships in Sheffield, England, becoming the first U.S. woman to win a short track world title since Bonnie Blair in 1986.
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Like so many athletes, Reutter trained not just through pain, but through injury that required time off that was never taken.
“After my first hip surgery, I made it back and had my best season ever in 2011,” Reutter recalled. “I was world champion in the 1,500, won a world cup title, which no American woman had ever done before. But I felt I couldn’t rest. I was in a massive amount of pain and had so much pride that I couldn’t give it up.”
She underwent two more hip surgeries in 2012 and worked her way back to competition, only to suffer a herniated disc in her lower back almost immediately after she received medical clearance to skate. She went through more rehab and some other procedures, but an awakening came when her grandfather died in February 2013.
“When I was with my family for that, it hit home really hard,” she said. “I spent 2-3 years in unreal pain doing what I loved to do, and it took me away from my family. Everyone has to be away from home for travel, to learn who you are, your place in the world, but it didn’t seem like a fair trade anymore. I wasn’t finding any roots or achieving my dreams anymore.”
Upon announcing her retirement, an opportunity presented itself to coach at the Academy of Skating Excellence at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee. As she skated less and coached more, the back pain began to subside.
Reutter credits U.S. coach Guy Thibault, a two-time Olympian for Canada, for finding a new perspective.
“He told me it’s actually not the work that makes the workout, it’s the rest,” she said. “Hindsight is always 20/20, and looking back I can see the mistakes I made that made my injuries worse. The hardest thing for an athlete to do is to rest. I mistakenly thought that if I took a few months off to focus on my recovery, maybe I wouldn’t be as good. That fear kept pushing me through pain that didn’t need to be pushed through."
Looking back, Reutter said she’s particularly proud of her experience in Milwaukee.
“It’s my home. My husband and friends are here,” she said. “I’m proud to be here with the team I built as a coach and contribute to them as a teammate. I do my best to stay around the national team girls. We’re really hungry for a medal in the (3,000) relay.
“I’m really proud of how far I’ve come. I think it would have been really easy to get discouraged, but I’m persevering. By the time the Olympic Trials come around (Jan. 2-7, 2018), I’ll have all the training I need for PyeongChang.”
Gary R. Blockus is a journalist from Allentown, Pennsylvania who has covered multiple Olympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.