It's All in the Mind: How an App Helped One Olympian Overcome Adversity by Kelly McHugh-Stewart

Olympic Medalist Katherine Reutter-Adamek is in a good place, mentally, despite the fact she’s been watching the 2018 Olympic Games from her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of course, she rather be in PyeongChang, South Korea, competing with Team USA’s short track speed skating team, but she missed the cut at the Olympic Trials by just seconds.  

Reutter-Adamek was once one of the best short-track speed skaters in the world. She won Silver and Bronze medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games and, in 2011, became the first American woman to win an overall World Cup Title. At 22-years-old, Reutter-Adamek was at the peak of her career, but despite her success, she wasn’t happy.  

“I remember making the Olympic team (in 2010) and everybody asked, ‘Oh my gosh, aren’t you just so excited?’” she said over the phone. “I remember saying, ‘No. This is just step one.’ I thought like that a lot throughout my career. If I won something, I would rarely feel joy or satisfaction.”

She had it all, but she was never content. She couldn’t enjoy the moment, because she was always dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. In Vancouver, she medaled in the 1,000-meter distance and the 3,000-meter relay, but carried regret placing fourth in the 1,500-meter, a distance she was favored to win. A year later, when she won the overall World Cup Title, it felt hollow. 

“That was probably the first time I realized it,” she explained of her mindset after being named the best female short track skater in American history. “I went back to my hotel room after the races were over and thought: Maybe I should celebrate or something? I didn’t know what to do.”

Not long after the 2011 World Cup victory, Reutter-Adamek was forced to retire due to injury. She underwent three hip surgeries and years of physical therapy before she was able to get back on the ice, this time as a coach Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center. It was working with young skaters that she realized she was happiest when she was on the ice, and it was then she knew she wanted to make a comeback. She was 27-years-old, not as young as most of the women she’d be competing against, but certainly not the oldest, and she was still in the process of fully recovering, but she knew she could do it as long as she made one major change: her mindset.

 “I knew if I were going to make a comeback, it needed to be different than before,” she explained. “I knew how to be a machine, I knew how to be an exercising robot, how to perform under pressure and to push myself, but I didn’t know how to enjoy my life during the process of chasing my goals. I’d had success in the past, but was I really happy in those moments of success? The answer is no.”

During her time coaching, Reutter-Adamek met Dr. Ian Connole at a skating clinic. After hearing him talk about mindfulness to her athletes, she knew he was someone she wanted on her comeback team. Connole agreed to work with Reutter-Adamek and introduced her to an app that changed her life: Vision Pursue. Through meditation, short videos and daily exercises, the app teaches people from NFL coaches to business executives to professional athletes to live in the moment.

Vision Pursue was created in 2016 by business COO Russ Rausch and 10-year NFL veteran Jon McGraw with the hopes of improving the way people experience life by improving their mindset, an area Rausch and McGraw both realized could have helped them during their own professional careers.

“With Vision Pursue, I saw the opportunity to create something that could change the way people train their minds by making mental training scalable, sustainable, and available to anyone who has the desire to improve their performance and life experience,” said Connole who works as a Mental Performance Consultant with Vision Pursue and holds a Ph.D. in Sport and Exercise Psychology.

According to Connole, Reutter-Adamek has more meditation uses on the app than any of Vision Pursue’s 3,500 subscribers. 

“Practicing meditation and mindfulness changed the way that I think,” Reutter-Adamek said. “Everyone has stress and anxiety, everyone has to perform under pressure at some point in their life, and with Vision Pursue, you get to pursue your goals and work hard and feel proud of yourself, whether or not success comes. It is a strategy that I started as an athlete, but realized it made a difference in my every day life.” 

She used Vision Pursue throughout her entire comeback, adding its 10- to 20-minute daily exercises to an already intense training schedule. She noticed the difference it made at her first World Cup Circuit back from retirement in 2016. The pressure to perform at the same level she had in 2010 was stifling. This time, however, she had the mental skills to overcome the stress and anxiety that filled her past. After setting a new American record and acquiring several top-six finishes, she was finally feeling like herself again on the ice, and this time, she was enjoying it, too. 

“In the first few months (of her comeback), she had extreme anxiety and was in pain since her injuries made her unable to go at one hundred percent,” Reutter-Adamek’s coach and former Chinese National team skater Hongyang Wang said. “Step by step, she overcame the obstacles of physical and mental frustration. I could see that she made an effort against her stress, and I believe that really helped her finish the training program maximally.”

Heading into the Olympic Trials in Salt Lake City in December 2017, Reutter-Adamek felt like she had everything under control. Her goal was to make the Olympic team on the first day of the Trials by winning the 1,500-meter distance. It was her strongest race, and, going in, she was confident she’d make the cut. However, in the first of the two 1,500 races, the skater behind her fell and took Reutter-Adamek down with her. Reutter-Adamek hit the ice and, by the time she got back up, she knew finishing first was out of the picture. Though she finished in first place in the second 1,500-meter race, it wasn’t enough to make the Olympic Team outright. Her trip to PyeongChang would come down to the Trial’s final distance, the 1,000-meter.  

“At the time I felt like, well, I’m the American record holder at this distance, I’m an Olympic medalist at this distance, a World Cup title holder at this distance, I could do this,” she explained on her mindset going into the 1,000-meter races. “The first round went perfectly, it wasn’t easy, but I won the race.”

After her first place finish in the quarterfinals, all she needed was a top-two finish in the 1,000-meter semi-finals to make the Olympic team. But when 17-year-old Maame Biney cut to the front with four laps to go and when 2014 Olympian Jessica Kooreman used a defensive technique to hold her to the outside lane, Reutter-Adamek wound up finishing the race in third. 

“Those two girls did the only thing that could have kept my plan from working,” she said about Maame Biney and Jessica Kooreman who will both be representing the United States in PyeongChang. “They skated beautifully, and I’m sure their coaches were proud. They turned their weaknesses into their strengths and killed it.”

The second she crossed the finish line of the 1,000-meter semifinal, she knew she wouldn’t return to the Olympics. 

“For two or three minutes I was completely speechless,” she remembered. “Then I saw my coach, and that’s when I just started bawling. You know sometimes when you cry and it hurts you deep down in your stomach, like it physically hurts you to feel so sad? That’s the kind of cry it was.”

Her unlikely comeback had come to a complete halt. Her plan hadn’t worked. At any other point in her life, not making the team would have crushed Reutter-Adamek. It would have defeated her. However, after spending two years focusing on her mindset, she was able to overcome her feelings of sadness and be grateful for the moment she was in.

Though she hadn’t made the Olympic Team, it didn’t mean she was done racing. Reutter-Adamek had one last race: the 1,000-meter B Final. She knew going into the race that she had to perform with effort and purpose; she couldn’t let her emotions defeat her.

 “I stayed back and tried to stay calm in the beginning, then went to the front as hard as I could, trying to finish with as much speed as possible,” Reutter-Adamek explained about the B Final, a race she won by almost two seconds. “I wanted to finish my last race hard. I wanted to feel good about my performance. When I crossed the line, I put my arms up in the air and felt proud. My goal in life has been to be a master at my craft, and at the end of that race I felt like I had completed my masterpiece.” 

Reutter-Adamek said she’s hanging up her skates at the end of this season. But unlike her last retirement, this time, she has a better outlook on life and is at peace with her decision. 

“In 2010, I either had to get a medal or I felt like I was going to die, anything less than a medal was a life sentence of me telling myself, You’re not good enough,” she said. “There are so many Olympic stories, Olympic successes, Olympic failures, but what I really hope to accomplish with my story is to help people see that there’s a different way out there. I changed my thinking and have a happier life because of it, so now I want to help other people find that same joy and passion by making their lives their masterpieces.”