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Olympics / Sports

Olympic-medal winning speedskater Katherine Reutter transitions to the coaching business

She should be on her way to Russia. At 25, she should be at her athletic peak, strong and confident and poised to add to the two medals she won at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Instead, Katherine Reutter will be watching the Sochi Games on television.

Not long ago, she was America's pre-eminent female short-track speedskater. But that was before three hip surgeries and chronic back problems forced her to retire at the ripe old age of 24.

Her career seemed to flash by faster than a lap on the 111-meter oval. During a span of a little more than four years, she reached the podium 42 times and won gold in the 1,500 meters at the 2011 World Championships and silver in the 1,000 at the 2010 Winter Games.

Reutter also anchored the 3,000-meter relay team to the bronze medal in Vancouver. Without her, the United States didn't even qualify its relay team for Sochi.

"I had a really short but a really sweet career," she said. "Most people can go to two or three Olympics. I got one, but it was a great one. So I have no regrets. I really don't."

Reutter, a native of Champaign, Ill., has made a transition to coaching. She is the short-track coach in the U.S. Olympic Committee-funded Academy of Skating Excellence at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee. She helps develop young athletes who show potential to reach the elite level.

For Reutter, accepting the job and moving to Milwaukee from Salt Lake City wasn't a no-brainer. She had just retired as an athlete and was still bitter about the way her career had ended.

She had an internship at a gym and was thinking about becoming a personal trainer. There were a few other job offers. Nothing sounded exciting.

"I had some options but nothing really felt right," she said. "When I first started thinking about (coaching), I was really scared about it -- the move and the transition and the job and everything.

"But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was the biggest reaction I've had to something so far. Even though it wasn't instant excitement at least it was a feeling of something. You kind of miss that when you stop skating. You miss that spark that your sport gives you."

As a teenager, Reutter wanted to follow in the skate-steps of her idol, fellow Champaign native Bonnie Blair. By age 20, Reutter was a consistent podium finisher at World Cup races. At 21, she won a pair of Olympic medals and was the heart and soul of the U.S. women's team.

"I watch old videos and I can't help but think, man, I was really good at that," she said. "Dang, I was good. When I watch videos, I'm like, 'Wow, that was me. I won that race.' To look back and remember all that I had . . . yeah, I want that back."

But she has come to terms with the fact that it isn't going to happen.

"You know, for a long time, yeah, I was bitter," Reutter said. "Looking back, I see how things could have been done differently. Hindsight is 20-20. I know for a fact that I always gave every bit of what I had when I had it. And I feel good about it."

The first surgery was to repair a torn labrum in her hip. She "sped through" her rehab, anxious to get back to skating and competing.

"But I really didn't have that foundation set of strength before I came back," she said, "so it wasn't very long until I had a back injury that ended up being several things."

The diagnosis was a hyper-mobile sacroiliac joint, facet joint arthritis and two herniated disks. The stabbing, unrelenting pain was so bad she couldn't walk around the mall with her friends, couldn't sit in a movie theater for two hours.

"The hardest thing about a back injury is that you don't look injured," Reutter said. "People look at you like, 'What's wrong with you?' They can't see it. It's definitely a hard injury to have."

She saw more than 30 doctors and specialists. Chiropractors. Acupuncturists. Orthopedic surgeons. She flew to Florida, to California, to Colorado, looking for answers.

"Nobody really understood why my back hurt so much," Reutter said. "Nobody knew what the problem was, but their best guess was that if I got more hip surgeries, it would clear up my back. X-Rays showed that my femurs didn't fit properly into my hip joints."

Undertrained and in constant pain, Reutter competed in the trials to select the U.S. world championship team in January 2012. She finished third in the time trial, a race she had won in each of the four previous years.

"One of my teammates, Anthony Lobello, came up to me and put his arm around me and said, 'Katherine, what are you doing to yourself?' " Reutter said. "I said, 'What do you mean? I thought that was pretty good.'

"He said, 'No. You're a champion and I can see how much pain you're putting yourself through. Don't go out like this."'

Reutter wound up finishing fifth overall in the competition and made the relay team but would not have been able to skate as an individual.

"The year before I was world champion in the 1,500 meters and now I didn't even qualify to go as an individual," she said. "The Olympics were two years away and it would have been silly of me to continue to decline over the next two years rather than just nip the season in the bud and go and work on getting better and try to come back."

Reutter consented to the hip surgeries, two in a nine-week span, in which her egg-shaped sockets were shaved round so that the femurs fit better into them. Then she was in rehab, three sessions a week, for an entire year. Her health insurance ran out and one of her sponsors, Red Bull, stepped in and paid her medical bills.

But Reutter was never the same again. Looking back now, she thinks she was misdiagnosed.

"I don't think it had to do with my hips," she said. "I think there were so many issues going on and we were too close to the problem to see it."

Reutter said she probably had developed muscle imbalances while not being able to train properly after initially hurting her back in a bad crash. But she was still winning races, so she understands how the root problem could have gone undetected.

"I won a gold medal two weeks before I chose to stop the season and get (labrum) surgery," she said. "I was still performing well, but I was in pain. So why would you look at an athlete who is winning gold medals and say, 'Wow, she must have a serious muscle imbalance."'

"I understand why it happened. I just don't really think we went the right way with it."

Reutter officially quit 11 months ago. She accepted the ASE coaching job, moved to Milwaukee in June and has started taking classes at MATC with plans to pursue a kinesiology degree at UW-Milwaukee. Her boyfriend still lives in Salt Lake City but plans to join her in April.

"I really enjoy Milwaukee," she said. "I enjoyed Salt Lake and I actually like Milwaukee better. Mostly because the people here are so friendly and it's so easy to make friends."

She also is enjoying the challenges of coaching but realizes she has a lot to learn.

"The hardest part is the physiological aspect," she said. "I can see the technique and I feel like I explain myself well. I love the strategy portion of our sport, so I love to coach at the races. But the really tough part is saying, 'This kid's top speed is just a little bit too slow and what do I do to make him faster?"'

The rewards are not quite the same as they were when she was standing on top of a podium. That doesn't mean they aren't fulfilling.

"What would be really amazing for me, even if I just hear it through the grapevine, is that one day one of my skaters would say, 'My old coach Katherine is the one who taught me how to make that pass to win the race,'" she said. "That'll be enough for me."

(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Katherine Reutter


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