Ruslan Reiter recently moved to Bozeman, Montana, so that he can train while pursuing a degree in aviation at Montana State University.
Sometimes careers develop slowly for athletes over a number of years and sometimes things move a bit more quickly.
Ruslan Reiter’s Paralympic Nordic skiing career falls into the latter category.
His first skiing lesson was in the seventh grade, and the year after he graduated high school, he made his Paralympic Winter Games debut in PyeongChang, South Korea, competing in cross-country and biathlon.
“That was a huge surprise for me, like, holy cow, I’m this kid just out of high school and now I’m competing in the Winter Games,” said Reiter, now 20. “It still wasn’t easy, but I was surprised at how quickly I was on the team and moving up the ranks.”
The U.S. has had tremendous success in the sitting division of Para Nordic skiing in recent years, with 15 of 16 medals won in PyeongChang coming in that class. Those medals, said director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic skiing Eileen Carey, represented big gains for the program but also highlighted the need for continued development of standing and visually impaired skiers.
Reiter, who was born with an underdeveloped right arm, falls into the first category.
“We have had great standing athletes in the history of Team USA, but Ruslan is the beginning of the growth of the next generation and that is exciting for our program,” Carey said.
Reiter grew up in Manchester, Maine, and his entry into skiing came about more or less by chance. In sixth grade he played basketball, but he didn’t like it very much, so he quit.
“My mom basically said if you’re not going to do a winter sport you have to find something to do,” Reiter said. “You’re not going to sit on the couch all winter.”
His friend, Zach Holman, suggested skiing.
“As soon as I got on skis I was like, this is the sport for me. I love this,” Reiter said. “I was a runner, too, and did cross-country, and I loved that it was basically the same but on skis. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Within a few years Reiter caught the attention of Carey, who also knew Reiter’s Maranacook Community High School Nordic team coach, Steve DeAngelis. Reiter traveled to a development camp in Bend, Oregon, as a sophomore and was soon invited to compete in a couple of world cup events for the U.S.
Although cross-country came naturally, Reiter had to learn biathlon and spent a great deal of time training specifically for that leading up to the Games.
It’s now his favorite of the two disciplines.
“I like it because it’s so hard,” he said. “You have to train more and not just for skiing, but for shooting, too. I like to be challenged.”
Reiter’s best finish in PyeongChang was seventh in the mixed 4x2.5-kilometer cross-country. He was also 11th in the 12.5K biathlon, 15th in the 15K biathlon and 16th in the 7.5K biathlon.
For Reiter, who was the youngest member of the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing Team, PyeongChang was more of a chance to gain valuable experience that he could apply moving forward than it was about his actual results in the competition.
“PyeongChang was a great opportunity for Ruslan to see the sport on the biggest stage and his job was to take it all in,” Carey said. “Going into the next Games cycle with that on his sport resume is invaluable. Our hope is that the experience gives a clearer picture of what is possible in the sport and a backdrop for training motivation. The first Games experience can take a lot of energy with the novelty and ‘awe’ factor of it all. Going into the next Games with the knowledge about how everything works will allow him to focus more of his energy on performing.”
The training and experience started to pay off this season, Reiter said, particularly in biathlon. At a world cup stop in Sweden, Reiter hit almost every target he shot at, missing only on his last one.
In June, U.S. Paralympics announced that Reiter was moving up from the development team to the national “C” team, making him the first standing athlete to make a national team in recent history.
“It’s been incredible watching Ruslan grow as an athlete,” Carey said. “He soaks in so much from skiing with his competitors on the world stage. He made massive strides in his technical skills in the course of a single event last winter. I am not sure if it was more exciting for him or for the coaches. The staff was spread around the course sharing many versions of, ‘Can you believe how well this kid is skiing!?’ over the radio. The progress was remarkable and made it clear that Ruslan is the real deal. It literally brought me to tears.”
As well as Reiter is progressing in the sport, Nordic skiing is not his only passion.
He recently made a move cross-country to Bozeman, Montana, so that he can train while pursuing a degree in aviation at Montana State University.
Reiter first became interested in airplanes from reading his father’s books about World War I and II aircraft and then by flying model planes. He planned to major in aviation at a college in Maine before the Paralympics became a goal. Carey helped him find the program in Bozeman, he said, so that he can now work toward both dreams.
“This skiing opportunity is kind of once in a lifetime, but if I can make them both work, why not?” he said. “That’s where I am right now."