Fresh off of a trip to Sochi with the U.S. Paralympic Team, Reid Pletcher feels more like himself than he has in years.
Pletcher served as a Nordic skiing guide at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, which ran from March 7-16 following the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. He worked specifically with 18-year-old Jake Adicoff, a visually-impaired athlete from Pletcher’s hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho.
But Pletcher’s road to Sochi had its share of ups and downs.
A four-year member of the CU Ski Team, the young standout won an individual NCAA title in men’s classical cross-country skiing as a junior and had ambitions to reach his own Olympic Winter Games. However, depression and anxiety left over from a 2011 head injury caused him to quit Nordic skiing altogether in the summer of 2013.
Pletcher had no plans to return to the sport, much less be back on the international stage just a few months later.
But that fall, Pletcher’s hometown Nordic coach encouraged him to try guiding.
It was in this role that he finally found peace. Through his Paralympic journey with Adicoff, Pletcher rediscovered the joy of sport and started to feel free from the pressure that once held him back. He and Adicoff grew close as they trained together, as one entity, and successfully secured a spot on the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team.
When Pletcher arrived in Sochi at the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, the magnitude of the experience became real.
“Walking through the dark tunnel and into the light and sound of the stadium was unbelievable,” Pletcher said. “It was a very sudden realization that I was actually a part of something bigger than myself. This winter wasn’t just about a couple of kids skiing alone in a forest. It was about Team USA, camaraderie, international representation on the biggest stage of competition, and even the ability to motivate the next generation to get here.”
And for Pletcher personally, the experience meant being rid of the anxiety that weighed him down for years after his climbing accident.
“Walking out on that stage changed my life,” Pletcher said. “It motivated me. It gave me a self confidence that I haven’t felt in three years. It forced me to come to terms with the fact that I beat my own head injury and that I could have an exciting future in front of me.”
And that was just the Opening Ceremony.
In competition, Adicoff surpassed his own goals and surprised Pletcher throughout the Games.
“I think Jake’s goal was to go out and try hard no matter what, and my goal was to give him the best chance to succeed,” Pletcher said. “But when we kicked off the start line for every single race, Jake surpassed my expectations.”
Adicoff’s impressive Sochi campaign was highlighted by a 6th-place in the men’s visually-impaired 20-kilometer classic.
“Jake continued again and again to keep up with my pacing, and we managed negative splits on most of the longer races,” Pletcher said. “For the 20km classic specifically, he was pushing so hard that he was starting to push my limitations, and I had to ski a lot more focused physically and mentally than planned to continue to guide well.”
The crowds, the atmosphere and the intensity reminded Pletcher of able-bodied international competition, and that familiar feeling of race-day adrenaline came rushing back.
“The most memorable moment was skiing up the biggest hill in the 20km with the coaches yelling at us that we are ‘killing it,’ seeing our own 20-foot image on the Megatron TV in the stadium, all while hearing and feeling the roar and excitement of the crowd,” Pletcher said. “And finishing down the straightaway in the middle of that exciting chaos.”
Adicoff and Pletcher finished inside the top-10 in four of five events, taking 7th in the 10km, 8th in the 1km sprint and 6th in the 4×2.5km mixed relay.
“While I expected early in the week to finish maybe top-10, Jake earned 6th and 7th-place finishes that were only seconds away from podium finishes,” Pletcher said. “It was truly motivating to watch.”
Pletcher said his Sochi journey even caused him to reconsider his own athletic goals.
“This whole experience has sparked the idea that I might not be done for myself,” Pletcher said. “I want more now. This might result in me continuing to push my own professional athletic career – in one sport or another.”
For now, Pletcher is taking some time to reflect on his experience and keep satisfying his endless thirst for adventure.
Immediately after the Games, he flew to Frankfurt, Germany, and roller-skied 800 miles in six days to end up in Siena, Italy. Next up is a spring of alpine climbing, including a scale of the four tallest mountains in Peru.
So for Pletcher, the adventure isn’t over yet.
In fact, it’s only just beginning.