He had just won an NCAA national title in men’s classical cross-country skiing for the University of Colorado, becoming just the third American-born athlete to do so. CU took the team title, too, thanks in large part to Pletcher’s impressive performance.
A college junior at the time, Pletcher’s dream was to take his talent to the highest level – the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
But just two months later, that dream was put on pause.
On May 26, 2011, Pletcher finished his last exam before summer break. To celebrate, he went rock climbing with some friends in Boulder Canyon.
“We were on our way back to the car and I saw one last route that I had wanted to do for years,” Pletcher said. “So I decided to do it. The last thing I remember was tying into the rope and getting ready to go.”
Pletcher took a hard, 25-foot fall, ripping the bolts he had placed for protection out of the rock on the way down.
“I landed on my neck on a granite slab and broke my skull,” Pletcher said. “Of the 3,000 routes in Boulder Canyon, there are five or six that are on the road. Fortunately I was on one of those routes, which allowed me to get close to the ambulance. I had eight or nine hemorrhages, which is more severe than a severe head injury. It was off the charts.”
He had dizzy spells. He lost his sense of smell. He had to relearn a significant part of the English vocabulary.
But while doctors thought he would be in the hospital for more than six months, Pletcher made it out in one and amazingly returned to racing for the start of his senior season. Not only was he back in competition, he was earning top-10 finishes for CU and beginning to reconsider the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
After graduating in December of 2012, Pletcher’s plan was to focus on racing professionally with Sochi in mind. Halfway through the season, he had worked his way to a top-five national ranking.
But Pletcher was still suffering from his accident in ways that weren’t as obvious.
“I came to realize around Christmas that my head was not okay,” Pletcher said. “I had a lot of major depressive disorders, a lack of self-confidence and motivation. Everything was just kind of two years there. I thought I was fine, but life was pretty depressing.”
Just four days before the 2013 U.S. Cross Country Championships, he stepped away from the sport.
“I could not handle the stress and expectations people were putting on me. It was just a really low point,” Pletcher said. “I got a plane ticket to Europe and disappeared. I couldn’t handle people asking me questions about what I was doing and why I wasn’t skiing.”
He spent the summer on his own, working as a river guide and trying to clear his mind of the struggles of the past year.
He didn’t think he’d be back on skis for a long, long time.
But over the summer, the coach of Pletcher’s hometown ski club in Sun Valley, Idaho, told him about a young visually-impaired skier who was in need of a guide. The athlete, Jake Adicoff, was aiming for a spot on the Sochi 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team.
“The way he said it was, ‘Reid, you still have talent,’” Pletcher remembers. “’You still have skills we could use. Just because you’re not competing for yourself doesn’t mean you have to give up Nordic skiing. We have a blind kid in town here shooting for Paralympics and he needs a guide. So if you’re not doing anything, do you want to go to Russia?’”
Though he was resistant to the idea at first, Pletcher slowly started to understand the impact he could have both on Adicoff and on a rapidly-growing Paralympic Movement. Though Adicoff is six years younger than Pletcher, the two knew each other through their club team, the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation.
“I couldn’t imagine I’d be skiing again this winter,” Pletcher said. “But the more people I told about the opportunity, the more people told me, ‘It sounds like such a life-changing event to go to Russia and be a part of it all.’ And the more people that said that, the more I realized they had a really good point.”
Now, Pletcher is on his way to Sochi as a member of Team USA.
It’s not in the capacity that he once imagined, but in a role that means even more. Because he’s competing for someone else, Pletcher said he feels none of the pressure and anxiety that once pushed him away from the sport.
He’s rediscovered the joy of Nordic skiing – a feeling that a few months ago, he thought he had lost for good.
“I am happier than I’ve been in two and a half years,” Pletcher said. “I was in the middle of some big life changes, giving up what had been almost my entire life. This gave me an opportunity to still be a part of it, to live vicariously through Jake and get to experience the Olympics – just in a different way. It’s the first time in two years that I’ve finished laughing and smiling. I’m happy with where I’m at.”
In many ways, Pletcher can relate to Paralympians. He knows what it’s like to face an enormous challenge, overcome it, and compete against all odds.
“Athletes can have hard times and great times, and I was pretty much on the far end of both of those spectrums,” Pletcher said. “I think it makes me a pretty good fit to help people with disabilities that might not be on top of their potential game. I have that understanding.”
Now he is a part of something bigger than himself. With Adicoff, Pletcher will compete at the first Paralympic Winter Games to be widely televised on NBC and NBCSN, giving him the opportunity to help change the perception of athletes with disabilities worldwide.
He and Adicoff will compete as one entity, and if Adicoff earns a medal, so will Pletcher.
From March 6-17, Pletcher will once again have it all.
Now, he’ll just be sharing it with someone else.
Photo Credit: Pam Doyle