Fall deals world-class skier his toughest hand

By SCOTT PHELAN/Montana State News

Reid Pletcher can be described as obsessive compulsive. You may not find him opening a door four times before entering a room, but he spends hours upon hours mastering a skill until he’s near perfection.

Over the course of Pletcher’s relatively short life he has already mastered an impressive number of activities, hobbies, and sports. While each of Pletcher’s accomplishments are considerable, the most notable one was surviving a life-threatening injury.

Reid Pletcher lies in a hospital bed following a near-fatal climbing accident.
Reid Pletcher lies in a hospital bed following a near-fatal climbing accident.

It was an injury caused his life to come to a jarring standstill as he struggled to redefine who he was. Now three years later, as he gets ready to depart for Sochi, Russia, as a Paralympic guide for a blind skier, he has begun to once again add to his long list of accomplishments.

Pletcher was born and raised in the small town of Sun Valley, Idaho, where he quickly discovered that he possessed a natural ability to master anything that crossed his path.

He has already learned to unicycle up mountains, juggle fire, crochet hats, play the guitar, complete a rubrics cube in under a minutes time, ice climb, kayak down class-V rapids, telemark ski, snowboard and even pick locks (He once listened to the minute clicks on a combination lock until he gleaned the combination, a feat that some would be hard pressed to believe).

However most of Pletcher’s better-known accomplishments come in the form of competitive sports. He has been Nordic skiing since before he can remember and began to earn himself a reputation among the nation’s best while in high school.

He qualified for six, and competed in five, junior national championships between 2003 and 2008. He would have competed in all six had it not been for an unfortunate accident while running down a flight of stairs, which resulted in a broken foot.

In addition, he qualified for the Junior Scandinavian Team twice in 2005 and 2006. The Scandinavian team selects six of the Nation’s best young skiers to compete in Scandinavia against the world’s most talented.

He then qualified for World Juniors twic, (which is similar to the Scandinavian Team, but for older more elite young skiers), in 2007 and 2008.

In 2008, prior to competing at World Juniors, Pletcher became the youngest American male skier ever to qualify for aprofessional World Cup in Nordic Skiing. He finished 35th.

Then in 2009, as a college freshman and on a full ride at Colorado University, Pletcher again qualified for another World Cup. This time finishing 45th.

While skiing in college, Pletcher remained mainly under the radar until his junior year when he boomed back onto the scene. Breaking an all time NCAA skiing record for biggest comeback, Pletcher not only qualified for NCAA championships his Junior year, but he won the 20-kilometer classic race. He now will always be remembered as an NCAA champion.

All of his Nordic skiing successes overshadow his noteworthy cycling career. He was the Idaho State champion in Criterium in 2005,2006 and 2007. In 2008 he completed professionally for the California Giant Strawberries Team. After 800 miles and seven stages of racing, he finished 35th in the worlds largest U-25 race. He was also the Short Track Mountain Bike State Champion in 2008.

For many people, just one of Pletcher’s achievements would be a defining characteristic, but for him, being defined by past achievements is trivial. Today, he is focused on recovering from a near fatal rock climbing accident that occurred nearly three years ago.

Shortly after winning the Nordic race at NCAA championships in his junior year, Pletcher found himself roped into a steep rock cliff near Boulder, Colo. His protective gear gave out on him, and he fell 30 feet to the ground below.

When he hit the ground, both of his wrists snapped before his head whipped backwards, smashing the ground behind him. His skull fractured, and his brain immediately began to hemorrhage in nine different places.

“My brain was basically surrounded by a halo of internal bleeding hemorrhages,” Pletcher said. “Any head injury with more than five hemorrhages is considered extremely severe.”

A helicopter was dispatched to the scene of the fall and transported Pletcher to the St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, Colo. Once he arrived, Pletcher remained in a medically induced coma for two days, as medical staff attempted to subdue the life threatening swelling inside his skull. Doctors and loved ones surrounding him were uncertain how severe the damage would be.

“I should have been paraplegic, or quadriplegic, or gone blind, or been a vegetable,” Pletcher said. “Instead, I only lost my sense of smell.”

Pletcher then spent the next month slowly recovering from his near fatal fall.

“It took me about a week to come back into the real world. I was conscious and talking the whole time, but I don’t remember any of it,” said Pletcher.

Slowly, Pletcher regained the use of his mind. He claims the recovery was, “very dreamy, in and out wispy intangible thoughts and confusion that eventually faded into reality.”

Even after his recovery became grounded in reality, the damage done to his brain was severe.

“I probably lost around 30 percent of the English language. Some words I couldn’t remember how to say,” Pletcher said. “It’s like the phrase ‘it’s just on the tip of my tongue,’ except for me it was a lot of words and all the time. The English vocabulary was right there, I just could never get it.”

As the doctors were trying to fully assess Pletcher’s trauma, they asked him how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Pletcher reportedly responded, “You get the bread and turn on the oven. Then get some salad and carrots; put all the stuff in a bowl and you put the bowl in the oven.”

Even with the severe trauma, Pletcher endured. Some six weeks after the initial accident, Pletcher was released from the hospital.

“The next eight-10 months were brutal because I couldn’t understand the English language,” he said, “and I couldn’t keep up with people changing the subject in a conversation.”

Just like most other aspects in his life, he seemed to conquer his recovery in a way that few others could. A mere seven months after his near fatal fall, Pletcher won a Super Tour sprint in West Yellowstone. The Super Tour is the professional Nordic racing circuit in America.

What to many at the time seemed like an incredible success, was actually a horrible omen.

Pletcher explains: “Winning the Super Tour sprint seven months after my injury, which I still don’t know how that happened, was almost the worst thing that happened to me, because everyone thought that I was healed. Everyone was like ‘oh you’re fine. I can’t believe you made it back. It was a terrible accident but you’ve made a complete recovery. You made it look so easy!’”

He went on to say, “Looking back on it, I was anything but healed. I had huge problems still and the hardest part was not being OK, and everyone just assuming I was.”

The problems Pletcher faced were complicated and lingered much longer than people realized.

“For two years there was a lot of confusion, a lot of me not talking, a lot of depression, loss of self confidence and loss of motivation,” he said. “I’d never been so low, and I didn’t think I would ever come out of it.”

He wishes that his climbing accident had happened in a different way

“I wish I had compound shattered both of my femurs and they were sticking out,” he said. “I wish I had displaced both of my hips, with all kind of bones sticking out everywhere; because all of those things heal. You get a cast and surgery and you lay in bed for a few weeks and then there is a very black and white line about when you are healthy again.

“That kind of injury would have been done and healed years ago, and I just wish that I had done that, because this brain stuff is vague. The hardest part about this entire thing is that everyone looks at me and they think I’m fine because there is no physical injury.There was no caring nor support for this vague, intangible injury when I needed it the most.”

After Pletcher’s miraculous Super Tour victory, he continued to ski race, earning himself his three more World Cup starts. However, even before he left for the World Cup races, he had trepidation about whether he should be racing, or instead tending to his still-injured brain. He went anyways, largely because of the massive pressure from the small inclusive ski community for which he was a celebrity.

In the World Cup races, he crashed twice, finishing in last place. That was one of the last competitive races Pletcher raced in. Soon after the World Cup he realized that the pressure of ski racing at such a competitive level was too much for a person with severe brain trauma to handle.

“I realized I needed to take care of myself, because I wasn’t OK. So I decided I was done with Nordic skiing.”

The next 12 months for Pletcher were agonizingly challenging. Suddenly the sport that defined who he was no longer had a place in his life.

“You see a lot of professional Nordic skiers stop racing and struggle to find their identity. It takes a long time to figure out who you are, and that it’s OK to be this new person.”

On top of what would be an already overwhelming task for most individuals to cope with, Pletcher had also just graduated college. He understands that graduating comes with a large set of challenges.

“Most people graduating college have a quarter life crisis. You get out of school and you wonder what you’re going to do. And people freak out.”

As if facing the “real world,” and losing his identity, which had defined Pletcher for much of his life, wasn’t challenging enough, he also began to lose grip on his long-term relationship.

“With brain trauma patients 85 percent of the time people break up with their significant other, and I guess I was one of those.”

The trifecta of life-altering events, in conjunction with an already battered brain, caused Pletcher immense angst. Angst, that few others could relate too.

However, just like Pletcher has been doing for most of his life, he has begun to find ways to succeed where others may have not.

“I’m actually accepting good things when they happen right now and realizing that I have an amazing life. That thought process was non-existent for a long time after my injury.” Pletcher said.

Remarkably, Pletcher has returned to the world of Nordic skiing. However this time, he is helping others find success. Pletcher is currently a guide for a visually impaired Nordic skier. The tandem connected through the Sun Valley Nordic Ski Program – a program where both skiers grew up. In the short time that they have been skiing together, they have already qualified for the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.

So, while the recovery process for Pletcher is still ongoing, it’s only fitting that he will be adding another remarkable accomplishment to an already long list.

As soon as the Paralympics conclude, Pletcher has plans to add another accomplishment to his rap sheet. He will be in-line speed skating 800 miles from Frankfurt, Germany, across much of Europe and into Italy.

“I’ll wear a back pack with a sleeping bag and a bivy sack,” Pletcher said. “The plan is to try and travel 100 to 150 miles a day.”

Though some would worry that the publication of their emotional struggle would leave them vulnerably open, Pletcher wants people to hear about all of his story, not just the highlights.

“My story is a hard one and severe depression was a very real part of it. Depression like that is nothing to forget or take lightly,” Pletcher said. “You don’t have to be vague, because honestly I‘ll feel better if people know what I went through. It will give me asmall amount of comfort conveying to them how badly a brain injury can mess you up. More than anything else, I hope I can give hope to others. The hardest times in life may seem infinitely overwhelming, but there can always be a flicker of light that will get you out of the darkness.”

-Edited by Kaitlyn Nicholas

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