Olympian, Steamboat snowboarder Justin Reiter retires from snowboarding
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs snowboarder Justin Reiter, a 2014 Winter Olympian, never really understood when other athletes described waking up one day to discover their competitive fire extinguished.
Reiter’s own fire has defined his career and his life. He tried to step away from the sport of alpine snowboarding once, after he was heartbroken at missing the 2010 Olympic team. The fire demanded he return to the sport, however, and he was back on snow a year later.
His desire to not just make it but to become the best snowboarder in the world reliably got him into bed early every night and out of it early every morning, even when that bed was in the back of his pickup truck as he tried to focus his finances and his training ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Then, this summer, the stories from those other athletes started to make sense.
It was a gradual process, Reiter said, a nagging feeling that lingered for perhaps two years, but this summer, he accepted it suddenly.
The fire’s out.
After a long career competing in alpine snowboarding events around the globe, Reiter announced Wednesday he’s retiring from the sport.
“I tried to re-motivate, to relight the fire,” he said. “No matter what I did, though, I would wake up, and I didn’t feel it. I was still pushing hard, training as hard or harder than I ever have, but it wasn’t resonating the way it once did.”
He doesn’t plan to disconnect from the sport. Instead, he’ll dive in a different way, coaching a small team of friends as they pursue their own Olympic dreams.
Realizing a dream
Reiter, raised in the mountains around Lake Tahoe in California, moved to Steamboat Springs at 18 to pursue his competitive passions. Now 36, he’s largely lived in the city ever since as he’s gone on to a career racing gates at snowboarding’s highest levels.
He competed in an even 100 World Cup events, earning four podium finishes and one win.
His very best result may have come in 2013 and helped pave the way to that spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. He was second at the 2013 World Snowboard Championships in Stoneham, Canada, in parallel slalom.
A late-race mistake in the championship race cost Reiter the gold that day, but while he said he was restless throughout his aborted 2010 retirement, the results of that race in 2013 never cost him any sleep.
“I almost started crying when I realized I had a medal in my pocket,” he said at the time. “It’s a great feeling to accomplish this. I had the win in my hands, and I made one mistake, but I will happily settle for second.”
That result was instrumental in the next phase of his career, making the U.S. Olympic team. The United States doesn’t sponsor an alpine snowboarding team, so Reiter did much of the work in his career on his own, with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club or other small teams of competitors.
His results leading up to the 2014 Olympics made him a medal threat and that forced U.S. officials to consider him for the squad. He learned officially he made the team several weeks before he boarded a plane to Russia.
“I’ve fought, laughed, cried and sacrificed to get to this moment,” he said upon hearing the news. “Now the only thing I want to do is take the moment in and enjoy it.”
He did enjoy it, he said, but the trip didn’t unfold like it does in a dream. Reiter was the only U.S. snowboard racer, a team of one, and he found that difficult. His own performances made things worse.
His qualifying time in his first event, parallel slalom, was too slow to move on to the bracketed portion of the event. He then missed a gate in qualifying for his second event, ending his Olympics.
“I accomplished something I set out to do when I was 9 years old, and I’m thankful for that,” he said later, “but it went differently than I had anticipated. From the conditions to the coaching, just everything. There were a lot of things I had hoped would have gone differently and didn’t.”
One more go
His 2014 experience helped motivate him to stick it out for one more Olympics, and the immediate results were overwhelmingly positive. The 2015 season was the best of his career.
He won the only World Cup of his career that season, under the lights on a slope built from scaffolding in downtown Moscow, and he went on to finish third in the season-long World Cup standings. It was the only top-10 finish in those standings of his career.
Still, he was never quite as fast after that season and off-the-snow issues weighed in on his performances.
The International Olympic Committee announced in 2015 it was removing one of alpine snowboarding’s two events, parallel slalom, from the 2018 Olympic schedule. Reiter filed a lawsuit against the IOC to keep the event in, claiming the organization had violated its own rules in making the decision too close to the 2018 Olympics.
It was a drain, he said, financially as he tried to fight in courts in Switzerland, and emotionally.
His results from the 2015-16 winter were comparatively underwhelming. He didn’t crack the top 10 in any race and made the top 20 only three times.
Last winter was more of the same. A 10th-place finish at the World Snowboard Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain, showed he still had the speed — that if he went all out for the 2018 Winter Olympics, he’d have a strong shot at making the team.
But, he began to wonder about that voice in the back of his head, the one that sounded different than it always had and the one that was getting ever more difficult to ignore.
His passion for the sport had been slipping.
“It’s kind of a chicken or the egg thing,” Reiter said. “Do you have bad years competitively because you’re unmotivated, or are you unmotivated because you had bad years?”
He took a trip to India this summer to ride motorcycles, part of a deal with a sponsor. He was intent on finding his focus in the country’s ancient Buddhist temples, to find his motivation to charge to the 2018 Olympics in quiet moments in foreign mountains.
Instead, he realized the game was up, the race was over and, finally, the fire was out.
“I knew it, but I couldn’t hear it so I fought it. Now I know the motivation is just not there,” he said. “I could still do it, but there’s no doubt the passion isn’t there. It’s a hard decision, but really, it’s also quite simple.”
Fully aware he was in the midst of the mountain bike race of his life, Aspen’s John Gaston said he “tried to not think too far ahead” to prevent the magnitude of the moment from getting to him. He eventually finished runner-up in the iconic race.
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