Making the team: Snowboarder Justin Reiter hopes he’s on the verge of realizing his dream
December 24, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Justin Reiter is scared.
He's standing at the bottom of Howelsen Hill, leaning on his snowboard, utterly comfortable in his environment on the mountain and in Steamboat Springs, his home this winter.
In a bigger picture, he's safe, too. He won silver at the World Championships just last winter and despite a slow start in the World Cup this season, he's currently slotted as the United States' No. 1 Alpine snowboarder.
If the Olympics were tomorrow, he'd be there, living his dream.
But that dream has both driven him and haunted him for a decade, and now, it may finally be at hand and that's a big thought. He's nearing the last hurdles, preparing for the final races and looking for the clinching results he needs to ensure he'll be on the team. And now, face to face with that dream, powered by his success in the last year but anchored by his failures before that, he's scared.
"Terrified," he said, the slope behind him buzzing with activity. "This isn't like the Super Bowl. They don't have one every year. We work every day for this for four years, all for the two days you have to compete there."
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Reiter, 32, is unique among the Olympic hopefuls. Ask 100 athletes about the 2014 Olympics, set to begin Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia, and 99 may tell you all the right things about "one competition at a time," about keeping things in perspective, about seeking success in the season as a whole, not in one event.
Reiter, however, is unabashedly, unflinchingly in it for the Olympics.
He thought he was going to make it in 2006, then again in 2010, but his results at the key moments weren't enough. He was slowed by injuries leading into both of those winters, and it all added up to other Americans earning the trips.
"It really sucked," he said. "It tore me up. It hurt. It bummed me out."
The plan had been to make that 2010 team, then retire. Once he missed the team, he didn't have the heart to try again, at least not in that moment, and he followed through with the second part of his plan, working as sales and marketing manager at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
"I started a real life, got a real job, and I worked hard," he said. "I was good at it, but I was not fulfilled, so I struggled with it for a year and a half."
Steamboat Race Team coach Thedo Remmelink helped change that.
"Every time when I spoke to him, he wasn't feeling that great, so I visited him," Remmelink said. "I basically told him that some kind of change, a step toward something new, would be good for him. Snowboarding was only one of the choices. Obviously, he was welcome to come back to snowboarding, but I just wanted what was best for him. He chose snowboarding."
Back on top
That World Championship race a year ago says everything about who Reiter's been, and what kind of racer he thinks he is now, on the precipice of his first Olympic team.
The United States has 24 snowboard spots to dole out to the four disciplines — half-pipe, boarder cross, Alpine and, new this rotation, slopestyle. That's not enough to go around, and Alpine is likely to end up with just one or two men's spots.
The championship race is the best evidence that Reiter's the man for the job, and at the same time, that race cruelly harkened back to other times when success has been there for the taking and Reiter hasn't come through.
It was there in 2006. It was there in 2010. It was there last winter, as he closed in on the finish line at the championships in the final race.
He'd already accomplished so much, qualifying against a field of the best riders in the world, then knocking them off one by one, advancing through a bracket to the championship showdown. Then he won the first of the two races, and he worked his way to a comfortable lead in the final race. He was a couple dozen meters away from gold when he cut just inside one of the final gates, disqualifying him and dropping him from gold to silver.
Rather than bemoaning a small but costly mistake, however, Reiter celebrated the best result of his career.
"It's a great feeling to accomplish this," he said that day. "I had the win in my hands and I made one mistake, but I will happily settle for second."
Now, that result is a major factor in his chances to make this Olympic team. Reiter hasn't handled this season's pressure particularly well so far, finishing 21st and 23rd in the first two World Cup races.
While he's still tops among his countrymen, Reiter needs more good results, and he knows it. It will come down to January and the trio of World Cup events that loom there.
Remmelink guessed one top-16 finish would be enough for Reiter, but it's not an easy formula and depends on not only his results, but those of his teammates and even the success of riders in other snowboarding disciplines.
"I'd be very happy for him if he would be able to go," Remmelink said. "In a certain way, it would round things out, finish them up the right way."
Chasing the dream
This year has been different. Reiter drew a heap of attention from the press this summer when he lived out of his truck in Park City. A prospective Olympian making his home in the bed of a pickup proved delicious for news outlets across the country.
It was the move of a dreamer, not a vagrant, Reiter said, pointing out that it allowed him to focus entirely on getting into shape, not on trying to pay bills and train. Plus, he was able to save enough to get an actual place — no wheels — this winter in Steamboat.
The story caught the attention of AT&T, and they signed him up for a three-day commercial shoot, a massive operation that involved three snowcats and a dozen snowmobiles.
The commercial will run during the Olympics. It remains to be seen if Reiter will be there, but with a little more than a month to go, he's excited, and he's ready.
"I'm hoping to be named to the team, but it's not done until it's done,” he said. “I have to stay happy. I have to stay healthy, and I have to stay fast."