FasterSkier recently caught up with Reid Pletcher, a former University of Colorado-Boulder skier and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) racer. Below is a summary of what Pletcher, 27, has been up to since he retired from skiing in 2013, including his most recent endeavor to become an American Ninja Warrior.
More than 3,000 hopefuls submitted applications to the U.S. reality television series American Ninja Warrior (ANW) in 2014. Of those applicants, only 400 were selected for the Season 6 qualifying rounds. Applying to ANW is almost akin to applying to an Ivy League school, with ANW acceptance rates hovering just above the single digits. The application itself is a four-hour endeavor, involving a series of multiple-choice questions, short answers, long-form essays, and a two- to three-minute personal video.
Furthermore, even if some of the obstacles on ANW, a spin-off of a Japanese TV series Sasuke, look a little comical from an outsider’s perspective, ANW courses often challenge even the toughest athletes in terms of strength, balance, control, and speed. Many competitors spend years training for the show. Producers take into careful consideration not only an applicant’s “Life Story,” but also his or her physical and athletic background.
All things considered, one would have to be either semi-superhuman or semi-insane — or perhaps both — to meet the show standards. It may come as no surprise then, that when former nordic racer, Reid Pletcher applied to be on Season 8 of ANW, the show’s producers found he fit the bill.
However, Pletcher, originally from Ketchum, Idaho, had no idea he would be offered the opportunity to appear on the show and compete in the qualifying rounds — taking place this Friday in Oklahoma City — until three weeks ago.
“The last time you could put in the application was mid-February and the [show website] said, ‘You’ll know within a couple weeks,’ and it had been like two months [with no word], so I just assumed I hadn’t made it,” Pletcher said in a phone interview.
Pletcher submitted his online application last November and spent December through January training, until he broke his hand while playing soccer. After the hand injury, though still plenty active, he was nowhere near the 100 pull-ups a day he had been doing for two months.
“I had kind of just given up on Ninja Warrior,” Pletcher said. “So I just kept going to class, doing nothing, hanging out and then did a couple river trips with the family and got my cast off and the day after I got my cast off, like a week ago, or two weeks ago now, someone calls me and is like, ‘Hey, this is American Ninja Warrior to congratulate you on qualifying for Season 8 American Ninja Warrior in Oklahoma City.”
With two weeks to get back into ANW shape, Pletcher was neither bleak or big-talk about his chances to advance through the qualifying rounds. His first visit to an official ANW gym was only a week ago. Even with limited ANW obstacle experience, Pletcher is positive about his potential.
“I’m in official damage control where I can’t get in insane shape in the two and half weeks that they gave me,” Pletcher said. “I think they keep it under the radar, like they don’t want people to know too early.”
“I can’t blow myself out in three weeks because you know I can’t change my whole physiology and anatomy in three weeks,” he added. “I just need to stay steady, do nothing too ambitious and just do the best I can.”
Pletcher’s ‘Life Story’: How He Won the Hearts of ANW Producers
It’s no wonder Pletcher’s application stuck out to ANW producers. The former nordic racer’s history is anything but normal.
After winning his first individual NCAA Championships title in the spring of 2011 while racing for the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU), Pletcher endured a harrowing climbing accident, in which he broke his skull. Though he would eventually recover and race again, qualifying for the Canadian World Cups in 2012, a few things for Pletcher would never be the same.
“I still can’t smell,” Pletcher said of lingering side-effects he still experiences from the fall. “I lost my smell and I lost a significant part of the English language, but I can talk now, so that’s good.”
“I couldn’t say nouns for a year and a half, like fork, knife, spoon,” he added. “I knew what everything was, I just couldn’t come up with the word. It was the weirdest thing. I still can’t really smell and I’m on some medication for chemical imbalances and stuff, but other than that I’m all engines running.”
For about a year and a half after the accident, Pletcher continued to ski race. He graduated from CU with a degree in finance and went on to compete professionally for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) elite nordic team. He won the first SuperTour sprint of the 2012/2013 season and qualified for the 2012 Quebec and Canmore World Cups the next month. However, those December 2012 races would be his last; he ultimately stepped down from ski racing due to side effects from his head injury.
Yet, it was not the end of his cross-country ski career. After spending a summer leading river trips in Stanley, Idaho, through a company called Mackay Wilderness River Trips, Pletcher received a call from the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Ski Team. They wanted Pletcher to work as a guide for visually impaired skiers.
“The U.S. Paralympic Ski team called me the winter after I stopped river guiding, the 2013/2014 season and said ‘Hey, if you’re not racing for yourself, do you want to race for visually impaired athletes?’ ” Pletcher explained.
He decided to go for it and began to training full time with Jake Adicoff, an up-and-coming members of the U.S. Paralympics team. He and Adicoff trained in Sweden for a month and competed in events around the world. Within the year, Adicoff had qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“Pretty unbelievable experience,” Pletcher said. “We raced five events together in Sochi.”
Pletcher Starts Speed Skating
The rush and euphoria of the Olympic Games is enough to motivate even the non-athlete, sports-enthusiast. For people like Pletcher, it was the spark that reignited his race fire.
“After going to the Olympics I found the urge to want to race again for myself,” Pletcher said. “But I wanted to try a different sport because I didn’t want the stress and expectations [of skiing] … So I went with speed skating.”
After making a few phone calls and purchases, Pletcher moved to Salt Lake City, Utah with $1,400 dollar speed skates in tow, to train full-time at the Utah Olympic Oval. Though he indicated that the crossover from nordic skiing to speed skating is historically strong, he also admitted that his limited experience in the sport — in fact, none — made for a difficult transition at first.
“I just called the Olympic Oval and I visited them a couple times a month prior and was like, ‘Hey, can I just show up and start skating? Like how does this work?’ ” he said. “I was a terrible ice skater — I had only skated maybe ten times in my life before — when I showed up.”
But being years behind some of the fastest speed skaters in the country didn’t seem to bother Pletcher. If anything, he seemed more confident in his abilities, despite his lack of experience.
“I had pretty ambitious plans,” he explained. “In speed skating, everything is based off time. If you hit this time, you’re on this team. And my goal was to try and hit every single A-time in six months in my first winter after never speed skating before.”
According to Pletcher, team status is determined by time. There are three different times a speed skater can strive for: ‘A’ times, ‘B’ times, and ‘C’ times, with ‘A’ times being the most advanced. Pletcher also indicated that there are two types of speed skating: short track, which is classically paired with Olympic speed skater Anton Apolo Ohno, and long track. Pletcher chose long track.
In long track, speed skaters race in pairs usually around a 400-meter distance oval, with one competitor starting in an outer lane and one competitor in an inner lane. After a lap, the two skaters switch lanes, so that both ultimately cover the same distance. Results are based on time, with the shortest races taking an average of 35 seconds and the longest races taking an average of six minutes.
“It took a while for me to figure my sh*t out, but three months in, I was putting some pretty consistent times down,” he said. “And by the end of the season I was super super close to all the ‘A’ times. I was probably about four or five percent off of each of the times.”
After finishing his first season within reach of the ‘A’ times — despite also having bilateral knee surgery the previous summer — Pletcher knew he still had more to give in the sport of speed skating. However, an opportunity to lead trips on the 104-mile Middle Fork sections Idaho’s Salmon River, pulled Pletcher away from his new professional pastime.
“The Mackay Wilderness River Trips offered me a significant raise and trip leading on the Middle Fork and that’s pretty much like the top end, what everyone wants to achieve in their river guiding career,” Pletcher explained.
With that, he decided to postpone the speed-skating dream. He returned to Boise, Idaho, where he is currently living, and began going back to school at Boise State University. Prior to beginning his first semester of mechanical engineering courses this fall, he ventured back to the river for the summer.
“It’s kind of soul-crushing manual labor sometimes with 22 hour days, but it’s worth it,” he said of river guiding. “Starting June 1st and ending October 1st; seven days on, one day off, seven days on, one day off, I kind of disappear from the world for a while.”
Yet when winter rolled around, Pletcher realized that for the first time, his usual race season would not include training or racing full-time. Queue American Ninja Warrior.
“So I didn’t have much to do this winter and this is where Ninja Warrior comes in,” Pletcher said. “My ex-girlfriend, Mali Noyes just texted me and was like, ‘Hey, apparently there’s a Ninja Warrior gym in Salt Lake and there’s going to be tryouts and you should try out, you’re a shifty little guy. That’s, like, exactly what you do. You could be perfect for Ninja Warrior.”
With that, Pletcher submitted his “Life Story” to ANW, pushing much of he above mentioned experiences in his application video. With a long list of uncommon circumstances, Pletcher was awarded a spot in the show’s Season 8 qualifier.
“The producer called me for an interview,” Pletcher said. “And she was like, ‘Yeah I just watched your video. Holy sh*t, that was intense.’”
“I’m glad I stood out,” he added.
Pletcher, the Next American Ninja Warrior?
With two days to go before Season 8 of ANW qualifiers kicks off in Oklahoma City, Pletcher plans is to take it as it comes. On top of having to work with a recovering hand injury, and limited amounts of ANW gym experience, he explained he will most likely be racing in the wee hours of the morning.
“I think they do it all through the night because it looks better in the lights,” he said. “So it goes from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. And most of the families with kids go first for logical reasons. I’m just kind of a lone wolf there, so I’m most likely going to go at 3 in the morning.”
With only 30 advancing to the second day — those who complete the entire course and those who cover the greatest course distance in the least amount of time — Pletcher plans to watch for the ‘problem obstacle’ and put down as fast a time as possible to that point.
“My strategy is basically, I’m going to watch as many people as I can before I go,” he said. “I’m going to watch where everyone’s falling and then just try in a controlled way, to get there slightly faster than most other people are getting there.”
If Pletcher makes it through the first day, he will have to complete the same obstacle course again, along with an extra half-course segment, the following day (Saturday, May 14) to advance to ANW finals. This year, ANW finals will take place mid-June in Las Vegas. Only 15 individuals from the Day 2 qualifier advance to the finals.
“I’ve trained with three or four other people I’ll be competing against and I have a pretty good feeling, let’s put it that way,” Pletcher explained of his competition. “I mean, I’m a pretty ambitious kid … In the back of my mind, I know I’m strong enough to get to Vegas.”
If Pletcher qualifies for the Las Vegas finals, ANW will pay for his travel and lodging. However, Pletcher must fund himself at the qualifier to get there. If Pletcher were to make it all the way through the final–which includes a back-to-back four stage course–in the fastest amount of time, he would win $1 million dollars.
“There are no awards at all except for the one person that wins,” Pletcher explained, adding that last year marked the first year in history where two finalists completed the fourth stage, but only one walked away with the million dolla prize and the other with nothing.
“There’s no paycheck for anyone, ” Pletcher said, “So you really got to love it. I mean I could see the drive. I’m the type, where I get through it and I’m like ‘I could do so much better, I’m going to spend all year doing it and I will crush it next year,’ I’m that type of mentality.”
Regardless of his end result, he relayed that the experience of applying and attempting ANW is worth the effort.
“It’s going to be an adventure,” Pletcher said. “It already is.”
Season 8 will premiere June 1 on NBC.
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.