Justin Reiter races alone
SOCHI, Russia -- The last snowboarder to compete for Team USA at the Sochi Olympics is standing by himself at the halfpipe venue at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. He's dressed in his Burton-designed U.S. snowboard team jacket and beige "USA" beanie; his head swivels from the halfpipe to his left to the scoreboard above his head. Although a group of U.S. Ski and Snowboard (USSA) coaches are dressed in identical gear and gathered at the bottom of the pipe, Justin Reiter, the only member of the U.S. alpine snowboard team, stands alone.
The women of freeskiing are competing in the first women's ski halfpipe competition in Olympic history and Reiter has come to watch Angeli Vanlaanen, who is skiing for Team USA. The two met just recently in the athletes village, and since Reiter has the night off, he wanted to support his new friend. He doesn't have many in Sochi.
Reiter is in Russia to race parallel slalom and parallel giant slalom -- alpine events many snowboarders don't even know are part of the Winter Olympics.
"Walking into the Olympics, I had other snowboarders on Team USA asking me if I was a coach," he says.
In the U.S., alpine snowboarding receives no endemic snowboard media attention, very little mainstream media attention, gets virtually no TV coverage and claims very few participants. Reiter is in Sochi without a coach or teammates -- or, really, much support.
"It's a bummer," he says. "I bust my ass to be here and make a lot of sacrifices because I love what I do. But to not even be recognized by your own industry, an industry that raised me and hopefully I've put something back into ... I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt."
Reiter, 33, grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colo. When he was 18 months old, his mom taught him to ski. But the first time he saw a snowboard, at age 9, he knew he'd found a new love. As a kid, he never planned to focus explicitly on racing. Like many of his freestyle counterparts, he spent his formative years riding powder with his friends on the days when he could and competing in halfpipe, slopestyle, snowboardcross and alpine on the days in between.
I'd like to show kids that they can do this without the support of the USSA, without an industry behind them, without a country behind them. They can succeed on their own.
But when the disciplines of halfpipe and parallel slalom were added to the Winter Olympics in 1998, he made the decision to commit himself to alpine racing.
"My generation, we did everything and it made you a really good all-around rider," Reiter says. "You also knew everyone in the sport and it was a tight-knit community. Then around 2000, that started to change and the racing disciplines started to split away more and more each year. ... The sport had progressed so much that athletes starting being forced to specialize."
He loved the feeling of flying down a mountain and carving heelside turns.
"Every time I lock into a turn, it's the exact same feeling as a huge backside turn in pow or laying into a bottom turn on a surfboard," he says. "There is something pure in a carve. It's a sensation of flying, but you're ultimately connected to the ground. It's unique."
More than anything, though, he wanted to be an Olympian.
Growing up, Reiter competed at the Junior World Championships with Abe and Elijah Teter, older brothers to two-time Olympian Hannah Teter. He rode halfpipe contests with Travis Rice and 2006 Olympic gold medalist Danny Kass and considered them all to be friends. In Colorado, he'd coached young up-and-coming freestylers Clair and Dylan Bidez and Zach Black, all of whom compete in halfpipe.
But in Sochi, none of the young freestyle skiers and snowboarders on his own team recognized him or knew his name.
"I was driving when most of these kids were born, so it's hard to hate on them for thinking I'm a coach," Reiter says. But when he tells his fellow snowboarders he races on an alpine board, he says he's treated like an outsider in his own sport.
Because alpine racing is not a judged event and there are no jumps or banked turns in slalom, style is of little concern. Alpine racers spend hours in the gym -- up to six hours a day for Reiter. They wear hard boots and tight gear and are concerned only with finishing first. His young, freestyle-focused peers just assume he doesn't understand their world.
"But they don't take the time to look below the surface, dig a little deeper and ask," he says.
At the opening ceremony in Adler two weeks ago, Reiter spent much of the evening introducing himself to his teammates. He made a point to talk to Danny Davis.
"I have huge respect for Danny and Sage [Kotsenburg] because of their style," says Reiter, who grew up idolizing the late freeriding pioneer Craig Kelly. "I talked to Danny to give him props for his switch method. That's such a sick trick. It's so simple, so stylie and that is something snowboarding is moving away from."
He pauses and thinks about how what he just said will be received. "I'm sure you'll have readers who say, 'Dude, how can you say that? You have no style. You have no soul,'" he says. "And that sucks."
Reiter still straps into his freestyle board whenever he gets the chance and rides the park and throws backside 180 methods, his favorite trick, off backcountry kickers. He spends a lot of time in the backcountry. Even during the heart of his racing season, he will make time to ride powder when it snows. But how can he explain that to people who have never even seen an alpine snowboard before, and just assume that because he races, he's from another planet?
His sport has been deemed decidedly uncool by the snowboard industry, so it does not matter that Reiter has freestyle roots, rides dirt bikes and camps in the backcountry on his days away from racing.
"I don't do this for money or status or to be cool," Reiter says. "I do it because I love it. My passion for the sport is ... stupid. It rips my heart out. But it also fills me up. Does that go against all common sense? Absolutely."
Last summer, in a final effort to complete what has been a 15-year mission to make an Olympic snowboard team, Reiter left his job and moved to Park City. There he lived in his 2012 black Toyota Tundra while training up to eight hours a day and sleeping beneath the stars.
He races on the World Cup circuit with no funding from U.S. Snowboarding, no coach, no wax tech, no doctor, equipment manager, physio or sports psychologist. He funded much of his season and trip to Sochi via an online "Rally Me" campaign -- sort of like Kickstarter for athletes -- and raised $12,566 through the donations of 156 individual supporters.
Meanwhile, Washington-born alpine racer Vic Wild had to defect to another country to gain access to a team with the full support of its nation behind it. Three years ago Wild married Russian snowboard racer Alena Zavarzina, applied for Russian citizenship and defected. He won parallel giant slalom gold on Wednesday, for Team Russia.
"That was the first time ever that I thought, maybe I should have done something different," Reiter says, of watching Wild win gold. "But I love my country. I'm not going to give that up. This journey I'm on, I have to remind myself, I chose this. It's hard. But I don't know any other way. I'd like to show kids that they can do this without the support of the USSA, without an industry behind them, without a country behind them. They can succeed on their own."
This past season, Reiter did more than succeed. In the lead up to Sochi, he followed up two fourth-place finishes by winning the 2013 North American Cup (he is an eight-time champion) and taking silver at the 2013 World Championships in parallel slalom. He is very much a medal favorite in the Olympic slalom event on Saturday, as well.
If Reiter wins a medal, he doesn't expect the fanfare and late night talk show invitations that his freestyle counterparts have enjoyed.
"U.S. Snowboarding might send out a tweet and I'll get a lot of love and support from people who already love and support me," he says. "I believe I am one of the best snowboarders in the world, despite the fact that nobody knows my name. If I win on Saturday, will it mean it was all worth it? I have no idea."