KEARNS, Utah — Katherine Reutter remembers figure skating lessons as a little girl, thinking how much more fun it would be to just cut loose and zip around the rink as fast as she could.
So she dumped her figure skates for the longer blades of speedskating and now is one of top short-track racers in the world.
"I was a figure skater, and I just always wanted to race. I never wanted to look cute or smile or do spins," she said. "I always wanted to go fast."
She still does.
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Reutter is one of the best hopes for the United States to end a long drought in women's short track skating. Although Apolo Anton Ohno has led the U.S. men to six short track medals in the last two Olympics, an American woman hasn't medaled in the sport for 16 years.
She's ranked No. 2 in the 1,000 meters and third in the 1,500 in the World Cup standings entering the Vancouver Games. She will make her Olympic debut Saturday in the opening heats of the 500, in which she's ranked No. 8 in the world, and women's 3,000 meter relay.
The 1,500 and 1,000, come later. Reutter already has won golds in both races in the World Cup this season — the first two of her career — and is skating with a confidence she lacked four years ago when she didn't qualify for the Olympic trials.
"Just the fact that I have won before just puts that little spark under my tail end to try and do it again," she said. "I already feel like I've done every bit of training and mental preparation I could have done to be at my peak in February. So just when it comes to race day, I want to have my racing skills be the same way — there's nothing else I could have changed."
Cathy Turner was the last American woman to win an Olympic short-track medal, taking gold in the 500 and helping lead the U.S. team to bronze in the relay at the Lillehammer Games in 1994.
Reutter was a 5-year-old in Champaign, Ill., at the time, fresh off her brief stint in figure skating. During that Olympics, American Bonnie Blair repeated as champion in the long track 500 and 1,000. Blair was also from Champaign, so Reutter had an immediate role model.
"We'd watch videos of her finals at the Olympics over and over," Reutter said. "It was really just ingrained in my head that it's not like I'm some country kid that has no chance. I have a chance to follow in someone's footsteps."
She read about Blair training with boys and Reutter's dad, Jay, liked the idea and pushed her to do the same.
"That's what my dad basically told me. 'If you want to be one of the best women, you have to be able to train with the boys,' " Reutter said.
She still does some training with the U.S. men. At 5-foot-7, Reutter is tall enough not to get overwhelmed in a pack of men jockeying through lap after lap. She also doesn't get intimidated.
"She's had a lot of success these past couple of years," Ohno said. "She's had a lot of very, very good races. She trains very, very hard. She busts her butt, man, every single day. You have to respect that. She's very focused, and I think she's got a lot of great chances to medal at these games."
Reutter is in four Olympic events and says — with modesty — that's she's hoping for three medals — the 1,500, 1,000 and in the relay if she and teammates Alyson Dudek, Allison Baver and Kimberly Derrick can sneak in among powers China, Korea and Canada.
"A lot of people are good at the 1,000. It's as fast as a 500 but it's twice as long, so it's the hardest race," she said. "By the time you get to the final, everyone knows that everyone is strong, so it turns into a pretty strategic race rather than just sprinting."
Reutter would rather have it just be an all-out sprint, but has been working on the navigation skills needed to excel in short track. That's been one of the biggest developments since Reutter left Champaign at age 16 for the Olympic Training Center in Marquette, Mich.
Another was just maturing.
An only child, Reutter said she would call home daily from Marquette in tears. She spent two years there before moving to Salt Lake City when U.S. Speedskating set up shop at the Utah Olympic Oval. By then, Reutter had outgrown her awkward teens — or at least enough that she was more ready to focus more on her skating.
"Occasionally I catch myself being like 'I'm a grown woman now.' And then I'm like 'what are you talking about, Katherine? You're just a little girl,' " she said. "I have that fight with myself all the time."
If she wasn't already the poster girl for the U.S. women's short-track team, Reutter got that title in a December taping of the Colbert Nation when she had host and speedskating sponsor Stephen Colbert sign her thigh.
Reutter giggled while making the unusual autograph request and as Colbert obliged, then turned to the camera and pleaded to his wife that he was doing it for the Olympic team.
If Reutter comes home from Vancouver with a medal or two, Colbert will likely be asking for her autograph.