As the winter Olympics approach in February, athletes are being named to final rosters, including four athletes from Maine. But some are still waiting to hear if they will be chosen for the games that come after that.
The Paralympics feature athletes with physical impairments, and Ruslan Reiter of Manchester, Maine is hoping to earn a spot on the Nordic ski team. At 18 years old, Reiter would be among the youngest athletes to compete.
Initially, Reiter started to Nordic ski for two reasons. First, he hated basketball.
"It was about sixth grade year or so and I didn’t like the sport at all,” says Reiter “I just wasn’t good at it. And I wanted to quit. So I quit."
The second reason was because his mom issued a directive.
"She's like, 'Well, if you’re going to quit, you have to do some kind of winter sport.' So that’s basically where it all started."
Reiter picked Nordic skiing after a friend on the team encouraged him to try it. He says it was even more challenging than basketball.
"You have to use your whole body, and I’ve only got one hand, so I can only use one pole. Which made it even more harder."
Reiter was born in Russia without a right hand. He was adopted after his mom, Annie Reiter, traveled to a children's home to adopt a daughter, Tonia.
"And every day when I was there, there was a little boy who, across the room, would smile at me and wave at me, come over and show his toys,” she says. “He engaged me every time I was there to see Tonia, and during that process, it became apparent that he was destined to be one of our children as well."
Her son's limb difference, Annie says, has never stopped him from doing what he wanted to do – including Nordic skiing. The athlete developed his own technique, pushing a single pole between his legs to propel forward. Using just one pole instead of two is a big deal in Nordic skiing.
“It's a giant deal,” says Reiter’s former Maranacook Community High School coach, Steve DeAngelis. “Especially the way cross country skiing has developed nowadays. The technique of both classic and skate skiing have become much more upper-body focused.”
When Reiter joined the high school team, DeAngelis remembers him as a shy kid who wasn't a great skier. He watched him grow to become team captain and a top competitor. It was junior year when Reiter’s skills really became apparent.
“They had this double pole start, which of course for Ruslan is a single pole start,” says DeAngelis. “And he beat everybody out at the double pole start. And the kids in the next line waiting to start after him were like, 'Did you see that? How does he do that?’”
Coaches with the U.S. Paralympic team were watching. One day, Reiter says, coach DeAngelis showed him an email he received. It was invitation for Reiter to attend a training camp.
“Ya know, it's like the eyes wide open, jaw drops kind of moment for me,” Reiter recalls. “I just couldn't believe it.”
At the training camp, Reiter changed his technique and got faster by pushing his single pole on his left side, and swinging his right arm for momentum.
Senior year, his team made it to the state championships. One of the top skiers got sick, so coach DeAngelis pulled Reiter aside and told him someone needed to step up for the team to have a shot at winning.
“Ruslan said, 'I can do it, I can do it,'” DeAngelis remembers. “And he definitely is a kid who's fired up by helping other people and his teammates. So the fact he had that extra motivation was awesome. So he skis in the state meet – that's all the best skiers – with one arm, and he finished 11th. It was awesome. It was unbelievable.”
The team went on to win the state championship. Reiter also competed in two World Cups his senior year. Last summer, he was named to the Paralympic development team. He's currently in Fort Kent as he spends a gap year to focus on training.
The Paralympic program has not yet named the Nordic team for the games in March, but Hubbard says Reiter hit the required benchmarks at the most recent World Cup in Canada, and he thinks he has a shot.
“Still waiting on the final decision, but keep our fingers crossed. We're optimistic,” Hubbard says.
Until then, Reiter trains hard, up to four hours nearly every day.
"Yeah, it certainly is nerve-wracking, and exciting at the same time too," says Reiter.
If he makes it, Reiter will be competing against adults who have been training for the Paralympics for years. But at only 18, Reiter says, he has plenty of opportunity to join their ranks.