After conquering pain, Katherine Reutter back at short track
Katherine Reutter remembers the day well. Not that it should've been all that memorable. She was simply going through her normal grind at the rink, tinkering with the skates of some athletes she was coaching.
''I had been sitting for a while,'' she says now. ''When it was time to get up, I was like, `Uh, oh, this is going to hurt.'''
Pain had become a constant companion in Reutter's life. Even after winning two medals in short track speedskating at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it was the one opponent she couldn't seem to beat. With her body breaking down after repeated hip surgeries and chronic problems in her lower back and pelvis, she was forced to retire from the sport she loved so much in 2013.
She was only 24.
Which brings us back to that day, a little more than a year later, after she had taken up coaching as a way to stay involved with speedskating.
She went to stand up and felt ... nothing.
''Oh my God, that didn't hurt,''' Reutter remembers telling herself. ''It was the first time in four or five years that it didn't hurt. I was even grimacing as I was getting ready to get up. But then, it was like, wait a minute, that didn't hurt. It was incredible. It was not like I was cured in one day, but it was my first glimmer of hope.''
Reutter has taken that hope and skated with it.
As her body kept improving, and knowing she didn't want to coach the rest of her life, Reutter decided to return to the ice. Earlier this month, competing for the first time since coming out of retirement, she earned a spot on the U.S. team that will compete on this year's World Cup circuit.
Next weekend, Reutter will be in Calgary for the first short track meet of the international season - eager, and admittedly a bit nervous, to see where she stands after all that time away.
''I don't know what to expect,'' she says. ''I like to believe in the process, that I did all the right work. But I also respect how hard every girl and boy in the world works to be great at what we do. I don't have any idea where I fall in all that.''
Back in 2010, Reutter was one of America's shining Olympic stars in Vancouver - bubbling over with Midwestern charm and very, very good at the chaotic sport of short track. She won a silver medal in the 1,000 meters and helped the U.S. claim bronze in the 3,000 relay.
She also knew how to sell the sport, famously letting Stephen Colbert sign her thigh - ''This is what makes me go fast, I need this,'' she quipped on his show - when the comedian stepped in to help sponsor the financially strapped program before the Vancouver Games.
Reutter seemed the logical successor to longtime American star Apolo Anton Ohno, who retired after the 2010 Olympics as the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian. The following year at the world championships, Reutter captured a gold and two silvers, seemingly setting herself up for another big medal haul in Sochi.
Her body had other ideas.
Longstanding problems in her hip led to three operations, the last of them a radical procedure that she hoped would help her finally get past the pain. Instability in her pelvis was another issue, not to mention a herniated disc in her lower back. Oh, and let's not forget the arthritis that had taken over in her back and hips.
Reutter was finally told that, while there were possible treatments that might help her get to the Sochi Olympics, she was facing a lifetime of health problems, including the prospect of never being able to have a normal pregnancy.
She decided to walk away.
''I like where I was as an athlete. I had accomplished some great goals. I was happy to spend more time with my family,'' says Reutter, a native of Champaign, Illinois. ''At the time, it was the right thing to do.''
Not that the pain went away.
''I couldn't sleep, sit, walk or stand how I wanted,'' Reutter says. ''I couldn't exercise really at all, maybe once a week. On the bad days, I was lucky if I could get out for a walk. It was intense.''
Looking to get some relief, she began seeing a Milwaukee chiropractor, Dr. Joe Scovell, who runs a clinic in the Milwaukee area where Reutter was coaching. He had treated many of her athletes, so she decided to give it a try. At that point, she had been in chronic pain for going on six years. What did she have to lose?
Scovell's treatment plan didn't focus so much on traditional chiropractic techniques, but more of a change in her nutrition and supplements. The pain got worse at first, but a few months later came the sudden breakthrough. There have been some setbacks since then, but soon the good days began to outnumber the bad ones. She worked weightlifting and yoga into her routine. She began walking every day, measuring her progress with a Fitbit that was a gift from her mom.
''The longer I went without pain, the more encouraged I was,'' Reutter says.
Now, life is full of hope again. Reutter is close to finishing her college degree - ''after only 10 years,'' she jokes - and is engaged for former professional hockey player Mark Adamek. They plan to get married sometime next spring.
The U.S. speedskating program is thrilled to have Reutter back in the mix. After a dismal showing at the Sochi Olympics, when the long track team didn't come close to winning a medal and the short trackers managed only a single relay silver, the Americans are in rebuilding mode with Pyeongchang just 16 months away.
''It's great to see her back on the ice again,'' says Alex Izykowski, head coach of the women's short track team. ''She's got that killer instinct that's hard to teach, that racing mentality.''
While Reutter is not where she needs to be physically, and her body at 28 certainly doesn't recover like it did when she was younger, Izykowski has no doubt that Reutter will be a strong contender for a spot on the 2018 Olympic team.
''If she puts her mind to it and stays positive, she can get there,'' he says.
But Reutter is quick to point out that returning to the Olympics is not really the reason she came back.
It goes deeper than that.
''Even to this day, I don't feel totally comfortable saying (Olympics) out loud,'' she says. ''I really just wanted to wake up with the same fire and passion I had when I was skating before. ... Every day, I want to wake up, open my eyes and say, `Yes! I get to do this today!' That's so uncommon for most people when they go to work. I wanted that feeling back.''
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .