Ruslan Reiter competes in the Cross-Country Skiing 4x2.5km Mixed Relay at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games on March 18, 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
While many Americans are staying grounded during the COVID-19 pandemic, Team USA’s top-ranked standing Para Nordic skier Ruslan Reiter has spent much of his year constructing and flying airplanes.
Model airplanes, that is. At least for now.
Reiter moved to Bozeman, Montana, last year to train and study aviation full-time at Gallatin College. While he may be postponing the start of his education until fall 2021 so he can attend classes in-person, he is spending this autumn building and flying model airplanes, as well as “plane spot-ting” around the local airport. He has built and flown model planes measuring more than 5 feet in width, and recently dashed to the local airport one day when he spotted a B-25 Mitchell World War II bomber plane just to watch it land with his own two eyes.
While flying and skiing may seem like two completely different practices, leave it to Reiter to find some similarities.
“In both, being organized and prepared is very important,” Reiter said. “You get prepared for a race by doing your pre-race routine the day before. You do your course review and then set a plan for how you’re going to approach warmups and the race. When you get ready to do a flight, you do the same thing. The day before you look at the weather, get yourself prepared to fly and to fly the route safely. You basically brief your flight just like (how) in Nordic you brief yourself on the course.”
Reiter, 21, was born with an underdeveloped right arm and adopted from a Russian orphanage 600 miles east of Moscow by Michael Conley and Anne Reiter in Maine. He tried skiing for the first time in seventh grade; his passion for aviation began even before that.
“It all started back in elementary school,” he said. “I was first really into dinosaurs and thought I wanted to be a paleontologist, but my dad had all these books on airplanes and World War I and World War II, and once I started looking through them I thought it was pretty cool stuff.
“It went from flipping through books to going to airshows to building kits with my dad and then into model aviation.”
Reiter and his father began to frequent their local transportation museum, attend air shows in the summer and build replica plastic planes before progressing to remote control ones. In high school, he became a youth cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, taking part in five orientation flights on the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, a four-seat single-engine fixed-wing aircraft.
“I want to fly that. I want to be a pilot,” Reiter could often be heard saying growing up.
His ascendance accelerated just as quickly on the skiing trails. Reiter was the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympics Nordic skiing team in 2018, making his Paralympic Winter Games debut in PyeongChang just a year after graduating high school. He finished seventh in the mixed 4x2.5-kilometer cross-country race, 11th in the 12.5K biathlon, 15th in the 15K biathlon and 16th in the 7.5K biathlon.
“I had no idea I was going to be in the 2018 Games and racing internationally barely two years after being on the team,” Reiter said. “It was a very cool moment to see the opportunities it has brought me.”
Since then, Reiter has moved up from the development team to the national C team and trains with the Crosscut Elite squad in Bozeman. He has been tagged as the face of the next generation of standing Para Nordic skiers in the U.S., a country that has recently had most of its success in the sport come from a bevy of sit skiers, including Paralympic medalists Oksana Masters, Kendall Gretsch, Andy Soule and Dan Cnossen.
“Scoring a medal at the Games is on my radar now,” Reiter said, looking ahead to 2022.
While the uncertainty of the 2020-21 Nordic skiing season schedule right now may mean less flying for Reiter — the first world cup was already cancelled — he’ll be flying his model planes and plane spotting to make up for it.