Champaign native settles into routine as elite Olympic athlete

Every once in a while, Katherine Reutter feels a little out of the ordinary.

Those feelings are evident in small ways, like when she describes some of her friends as “normal.” If they’re normal, what does that make her?

When referencing “normal” people she usually stops herself or at least acknowledges a kind of silliness in the word choice. Upon viewing her recent history, though, one cannot help but agree that Reutter has lived an untraditional life — that of an elite athlete.

In 2005, after her junior year at Centennial High School, Reutter, then 17, moved from her home in Champaign to Marquette, Mich., to train to be an Olympic speedskater. Since then she has racked up a sizable amount of hardware in the sport, including silver and bronze Olympic medals and a gold at the World Championships. She has traveled the world competing among the sport’s elite, of whom she is a member.

But recently, she did something very … normal. Katherine Reutter bought a house.

“I’m trying to build my life outside of speedskating a piece at a time,” Reutter said. “Because for so long I’ve really defined myself entirely by my world rank, and my medal count and how fast my lap times were that day.

“But I’m trying really hard to kind of make speedskating a part of my life instead of making my life about speedskating.”

The house is located about two miles from her ice rink in Salt Lake City, which “seems super far” when Reutter chooses to bike or run to and from workouts, some of which last upward of eight hours.

It’s a ranch-style, with two roommates living at ground level and Reutter in the lower level. Her living space would be a perfect “man cave,” she said, with ample space for a big-screen TV and beer pong table, if she was into that sort of thing.

Instead she will likely decorate with flowers, various furniture and bookshelves — as the daughter of a University of Illinois instructor, she loves to read.

Indeed, Reutter, who spent a few weeks in Champaign before heading back to Utah last weekend, is gaining a sense of normalcy outside athletics.

It’s difficult to separate oneself from the lifestyle of a world-class athlete. The daily decisions Reutter must make — should I eat that Easter candy? should I hit the snooze on my alarm? — are present in all aspects of life.

“It’s not so much just a job as it is, your whole life has to be consistent with the life of an athlete,” she said.

Of course, Reutter is pretty used to it by now. She has been dedicated to the athlete’s lifestyle for most of her life.

When she began seriously considering going professional at age 12, she said, “Everyone, my teachers, my parents, my coaches, they would all sit me down and say, ‘Katherine, that’s really nice and all, but you need to have a real plan for when you grow up.’”

That real plan failed to materialize.

“I never made up a backup plan and I committed to it and that’s what happened,” she said.

That commitment led to a silver medal in the 1,000 meters and bronze in the 3,000-meter relay at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But Reutter still felt at that time that she had a ways to go, as exhibited by her reaction to rapper Jay-Z’s song, “I Made It.”

“I have it on my iPod,” Reutter said. “I got it right after the Olympics and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah I made it this is awesome.’ But every time it comes on I switch right past it because I don’t feel comfortable listening to that song because I haven’t made it yet.”

“There’s such a thing as accomplishing your goals but there’s never a point, at least in sport, where you can just stop and say, ‘I did it, I’m there, I don’t have to go anymore.’ You’re always going to be, ‘OK I won nationals but I’m still getting beat at World Cups. OK I’ve won World Cups but I’m still getting beat at World Champs. OK I’ve won World Champs but I’m still losing the Olympics.’ You can always keep going.”

Nevertheless, Reutter has had the greatest individual success of her career since the Olympics, culminating in a second-place overall finish at the 2011 World Championships.

At that competition, she won gold, silver and bronze medals. Her gold medal in the 1,500 meters was the first for a U.S. woman at the short track World Championships since four-time Olympian Bonnie Blair — who also grew up in Champaign — in 1986.

Reutter appreciates the significance of her emergence, along with Blair’s and the several other Olympic speedskaters Champaign has produced.

“It seems like not a lot of skaters come from Champaign, but the thing about it is, no mediocre skater ever comes from Champaign,” she said. “Either you skate till you’re 13 and you get tired of it and you quit, or you become the next world champion.”

By those standards, Katherine Reutter is indeed very normal.