Editor's Note: Gretchen Bleiler announced Jan. 24 that should would not be competing in this year's X Games. She said in tweet, "Not where I want to be just yet and keeping a big picture perspective on Sochi." See The Aspen Times on Friday for the complete story.
Call it a mishap, an accident or the nature of the game; whatever the definition, an injury is never a wanted fate of any professional skier or snowboarder. For some, it could mean an uncertain recovery, months off the snow and a missed shot at a title. For others, it could mean the end of a career for good.
For more than a decade, Aspen's hometown snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler has gambled with the perils of the extreme-sport circuit and danced the fine line between success and tragedy. At age 31, she has 11 years of Winter X Games underneath her, capturing four snowboard superpipe gold medals and positioning herself at a tie with Kelly Clark for the most ever.
After accomplishing her childhood dream of competing in the Winter Olympics not once but twice and coming away with the silver in 2006, Bleiler has proven her influence as an athlete. She has developed the first-ever all girls' halfpipe competition in Aspen, the CoverGirl Snow Angels Invitational; designed her own signature clothing line; and become an active spokeswoman in the fight against global warming.
Arguably one of the biggest names in women's action sports, Bleiler is unstoppable, marked by skill, strength and an undaunted presence.
But as is the case with all competitive athletes, the consequences of the sport are never far between.
On the afternoon of June 26, while practicing a double-backflip maneuver on a trampoline in Park City, Utah, the unthinkable moment in Bleiler's career happened when she over-rotated the flip, sending her knee bouncing off the trampoline and into her face.
Bleiler shattered her right eye socket, broke her nose, split open her eyebrow and suffered a serious concussion. She found herself saying in a bloody ambulance ride on the way to Salt Lake City, "Snowboarding isn't worth it."
Called an "orbital wall blowout," where the socket shatters and there is no longer anything holding the eye in place, Bleiler recalls the excruciating experience of her eye sinking back and down in her head, causing her to suffer extreme double vision and vertigo.
"My eyes were no longer aligned, and having them both open at the same time would make me sick," she said.
With a week leading up to surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Bleiler tied a T-shirt across her injured eye and lay in bed in a dark room with her eyes closed in hopes of lessening the discomfort.
"I think the scary part was the fact that an accident as silly as a trampoline might damage my eye permanently, and even more scary was the lack of guarantees from the doctors that I would fully recovery," she said.
But luckily for Bleiler, there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Doctors at Johns Hopkins built a titanium bridge where the eye socket once was, realigned her eyeball through her lower eyelid and fixed her nose. With no incisions to her face and virtually no visual scars, she was on the fast track to recovery - or so she thought.
"I went to New Zealand in October, and it did not go well at all. In my everyday life I was fine, but when I dropped into the pipe and looked up at the 22-foot wall, I had double vision every time," she said.
Knowing that something had to be done if she wanted to be back in form for the X Games in January, Bleiler started working five days a week with her physical therapist, Brad Jones.
"Honestly, he is the only reason why I'm back on the board right now," Bleiler said. "If it wasn't for his knowledge, his makeshift measuring system and exercises, my eye wouldn't have nearly the range of motion that it does today."
Now, after almost three months of exercise, moving her eye up and down in each direction as far as it could go, her double vision has subsided greatly, and she claims to be 100 percent going into this year's X Games, her first event since the accident.
"This whole experience has put me in a different place," she said. "I'm used to working hard and doing whatever it takes, but this is one of those situations where an aggressive mentality doesn't work in my favor."
As time moves forward, Bleiler hopes to return to the plan she had before the accident, which focuses on reinventing her way of riding with greater amplitude and creative spins and grabs. If things go as planned, she will master a front cork 1080 for the Sochi Olympics, just a year away.
For now, however, the athlete is taking it day by day as she works to regain her confidence and focus on being in the moment - especially since her greatest competition is finding patience within herself.
And, although she doesn't plan on pushing the limits at this weekend's X Games here in Aspen, Bleiler rests assured that her years of experience, coupled with mental strength and a hyper-awareness of where she is in the air will be enough to get her through anything.
"I think the reason I have been able (to snowboard) for so long is because I'm able to walk that line where I'm pushing to get to the top but not overstepping it," she said. "I'm extremely calculated in the way I push myself, and while this accident made the dangers of what I do that more serious and real, I still love it more than anything, and I know I still have a lot more to give."