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Built on Hope

Making it as a professional snowboarder is all about hard work: elite-level athletic training, traveling the world to compete in the international circuit, maintaining sponsorships -- and hoping the weather cooperates.

When he announced his retirement from professional snowboarding last fall, Olympian Justin Reiter had won silver at World Snowboard Championships, gold at the World Cup, and represented the USA in the 2014 Sochi Games, making him one of the most successful US Alpine snowboarders ever.

And yet, even athletes atop the international circuit survive on a razor-thin margin: One second is the difference between going to the Olympics and going home. One degree is the difference between snow and rain -- between being able to train at home, and having to spend thousands to travel abroad for training. Justin has been outspoken about climate change, so we caught up with him to talk about how it’s affecting professional snowboarders.

We met Justin in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a town that has produced more winter Olympians than any other place in the US. His path to becoming a professional snowboarder really demonstrates his grit -- building a brand, snagging sponsorships, sleeping in his truck, crowdfunding to cover his Olympic costs. And the more we learned about the challenges that he and other professional athletes face, we really started to see how climate change is undermining the global ski industry and the countless communities it supports.

Justin’s Olympic journey started at nine years old, when he received a Burton Performer Elite snowboard for Christmas. He was so excited, he says, that he “slept with [the] board that night.” By the time he was 14, he was already dreaming of the world stage. “In ‘96 they started to have discussions about snowboarding being in the Olympics … even before it was officially listed in the Olympics, I knew that I wanted to become a professional snowboarder and I wanted … to represent my country, the United States of America in the Olympics.”

By 2006, Justin was at the highest level of the sport, racing in World Cup events, training “every darn day,” but the pieces weren’t falling into place. He missed the qualifying time for the 2006 Olympics, and set his heart on the 2010 games. But in 2009, a season-ending injury put him too far behind in training. He’d have to miss the 2010 Olympics as well. He was heartbroken: “A lot of people look at the Olympic journey, because it’s only on TV once every four years, [and] it’s easy to assume … this athlete wakes up one morning … a couple of months before the Olympic Games, throws a snowboard, throws on some skis, and goes out there and qualifies and then competes.” But it’s never that simple.

Stepping away from the sport for two years, he took a desk job and tried to forget his Olympic dream. But he kept being called back to snowboarding. In 2012, he dusted off the board, redoubled his commitment, and found more success than ever before. Over the next two years, Justin notched some World Cup podiums and a silver medal in the World Championships. And in the winter of 2014, he fulfilled his dream of representing the United States of America on the US Men’s Olympic Snowboard Team.

Justin’s Olympic journey is not uncommon. And neither is the story of what it took to become a professional snowboarder: hard work behind the scenes. It took daily dedication to earn and required daily dedication to maintain. “An athlete is a brand and it has strategic partners.” These strategic partners, or sponsors, aren’t just paying for Justin to snowboard. They’re paying for his brand, his marketing, and the content that he can produce. So when he’s training, racing, and travelling, he has “to make sure they have constant, quality content.”

Climate change adds in a level of variability that threatens his livelihood and the sport: “It’s scary based on the environmental perspective, but it’s also terrifying in the sense of the livelihood, my livelihood, my fellow athletes’ livelihoods, and the companies that we work for. It’s an exponential ripple effect that takes place when you can’t compete because a race gets cancelled because there’s no snow.” That ripple goes deep into the communities that the ski industry supports. “It is an entire community that hinges on the resort being there. And the climate that supports the resort. The resort in essence supports the community. And the community supports itself. And if you remove the resort, I don’t know what would happen to the community.”

Is he wrong to worry about this? Hardly. EPA scientists say that mountain snowpack in Colorado has declined 20 to 60 percent since the 1950s. And average temperatures in Colorado have notched up 2 degrees in the last 40 years. For an athlete hustling hard to stay at the elite level, weather-based cancellations mean lost revenue, more expensive travel, and more seeds of doubt. Justin asked us, “when you have a race that’s cancelled due to a lack of snow, due to adverse weather conditions that are not normal, it becomes this question of: how long can I continue to do this?”

Despite all of this, Justin still exudes hope. “Athletes are built on hope. We crash every day. What picks us back up and makes us look forward to what could be is hope … I wouldn’t be an Olympian if I didn’t have an excessive amount of hope.” If we’re going to tackle climate change, we should draw hope from all the great work that the town and resort of Steamboat are doing to reduce emissions. “I think small towns and small communities are what’s going to be the influencer to the next level,” Justin says.

And how does he maintain that hope over the long haul? As his mother always told him growing up, “you eat an elephant an inch at a time.” It’s a marathon, he says, not a sprint: “That’s what it takes to get to the Olympics. It’s not about how much you move in one broad stroke, it’s about consistently moving towards a better future. I’m hopeful for the future because that’s inherent in who I am and I wouldn’t be here without it.”

Written by Peter Sargent

Photography by Virginia Sargent

Edited by Jeff Gang


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