Katherine Reutter: Champaign cornfields to Vancouver ice

Katherine Reutter may be the least nervous of anyone in her family for her Olympic debut. When Reutter, a 21-year-old short track speedskater from Champaign, takes the ice in Vancouver, everyone in her family will avert to his or her own way of channeling nerves while she’s racing.

Her mom will clutch her hands together tightly over her stomach. Her dad’s leg will shake the entire race. Her grandmother will go into praying mode. Her grandfather will keep his eyes peeled on the ice at all times.

Reutter’s mother, Beth, said her “mom nerves” normally come into play about one week before her daughter competes. However, for the Olympics, they arose nearly two weeks ago, she said.

“We all have our own little techniques for managing the stress,” Beth said. “Because when they go into competition, the likelihood of falling is very high, and the likelihood of getting hurt is very high … That’s my fear. The day she gets hurt and they carry her off the ice.

“It’s like NASCAR on ice,” she added of short track. “It’s whatever is happening at the moment in time.”

Deemed the top woman on the U.S. speedskating team by many of the media, Reutter is expected to medal in as many as three of four of her events. Reutter will compete in the 500 meters, 1,500 meters, 1,000 meters and 3,000-meter relay.

“I know it’s going to be a really stressful competition,” Reutter said. “But when it comes to racing, I’m planning on treating it just like any World Cup or World Championship event because it’s the same girls doing the same distances on ice that I’ve skated on before.

“I’ve never been to the Olympics, so it’s a bit more of a mental game for me than for other veterans who have been to Games before,” Reutter added. “They know what to expect and how to prepare. So, they’ve been focusing on all they can do physically, whereas I’m going into Vancouver knowing that I’ll be surprised. I’ll probably be overwhelmed and stressed.”

Meanwhile, Beth has confidence just knowing her daughter is atop the world stage.

“She’s right up there now with the Koreans and the Chinese,” Beth said. “You can’t do much better now than get the gold.”

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy for Reutter, as she’s been training for the Games her entire life.

“I don’t think a champion comes on race day,” Reutter said. “I think it comes every day leading up to that.

“Whenever I’m not feeling very motivated or I’m tired on any given training day, I definitely think about what it’s going to be like to race at the Games,” she added. “What it’s going to be like with two laps to go, who’s going to be leading, who’s going to be passing and what my coach will want me to do in that situation, and after the race seeing my family. Hopefully, they’re proud of what I’ve done.”

Reutter’s Olympic career began in the cornfields of Champaign at the University Ice Arena on Armory Avenue. She took a learn-to-skate class there with her mom at age 4, which quickly turned into figure skating lessons.

Those didn’t last long either.

“I really didn’t like figure skating,” Reutter said. “I didn’t want to smile. I didn’t want to do tricks. I just wanted to race.”

Her parents enrolled her in the Champaign-Urbana Speed Skating Club, which practiced Tuesdays and Thursdays in addition to dryland workouts.

But Reutter coveted more than two days a week on the ice.

“She would come to the start of a public skating session,” said the Ice Arena’s assistant director, Dave Bagger. “It’s kind of hard for speedskaters to really skate during a public skating session, but she’d come at the very beginning and practice her starts. She’d be at one end of the ice and then start to sprint before she even made the first turn. That was something she did on a regular basis with her dad.”

Reutter’s father, Jay, began to drive her to St. Louis nearly every weekend for practice when she became good enough to compete.

However, Jay could only be her coach for so long.

“He was telling me there was nothing else he could teach me,” Reutter said. “If I wanted to get better, then I was going to have to go to a coach who knew more about the sport … It was just something that had to be done if I wanted to get any better.”

As a stay-at-home dad, Jay has played the largest direct role in Reutter’s career. But off the ice, Beth — a faculty member in ACES — also has a good idea about what goes into raising an athlete.

“Unlike most moms, I couldn’t tell you how much a gallon of milk cost, but I could tell you what helmets cost, what boots cost,” Beth said.

“One of the questions I get is, ‘What does it take to raise an Olympian?’” Beth added. “To be honest, it’s not something we ever thought about, it was just part of how we raised Katherine. At an early age in our household, you did not sleep until noon. You got up early. Nine o’clock was late. And on the weekend, we were out doing things.”

Reutter left Centennial High School in Champaign to move to Marquette, Mich., when she was 16. Two years later, she moved to Salt Lake City to train with the U.S. national team.

Reutter has the spirit of a competitor, and moving hundreds of miles away from her family revealed that she’d do anything to pursue her Olympic dreams.

“I think anything is possible, as long as you make it happen,” Reutter said. “I don’t think that things happen by mistake or that people get lucky. I think that you set a goal, prepare to be the best at that goal and that’s how you make anything happen.”

Reutter has already fulfilled her mom’s top goal — making the Olympic team. Anything more would be “icing on the cake” for Beth.

“When I shared that with Katherine, she was a little offended,” Beth said. “She was like, ‘I can do better than that.’”