The progression of Gretchen Bleiler
Ryan Summerlin November 8, 2006
She won a silver medal at the Olympics, then posed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, waved the starting flag at the Daytona 500, shook hands with the president, walked the red carpet with the likes of Kobe, LeBron and Danica, threw out the first pitch at Coors Field and showed off her enchanting bare backside for charity, mind you on the glossy pages of Jane magazine.Its funny, though. The one thing Gretchen Bleiler didnt do during the craziest year of her life is the one thing she cant stop talking about.I feel like I didnt do a whole lot of progressing with my snowboarding, said the 25-year-old local who, in February, buried her nerves to lay down her silver-medal halfpipe run in front of a huge contingent of family and friends in Bardonecchia, Italy. When you are working on dialing in your contest run for the biggest contest of your life, youre just polishing.Not that the polishing felt natural. Bleilers modus operandi is to push constantly both what she is capable of doing and subsequently the limits of her sport. When youve pushed so hard to get to the top of the heap, its goes against instincts to downshift and just cruise.But then theres the other side of Gretchen Bleiler the pragmatic, detail-oriented one.Bleilers mother, Robin Gorog, calls her daughter the most thorough individual she knows.And when she took everything into account, then boiled it all down to find the surest route to an Olympic medal and a lifelong dream becoming reality, Gretchen Bleiler the realist won out against Gretchen Bleiler the gambler.To say she stopped taking risks couldnt be further from the truth, but Bleiler cut out the unnecessary ones. She scrapped the trick shed worked on the whole offseason the one that no woman has ever done in a halfpipe contest and honed in on the maneuvers she already had down pat. With the Olympic pressure mounting, she pulled out of the Winter X Games after taking a hard fall during a practice run. And she rode literally nothing other than halfpipe and spent long hours in the gym.Now, after nearly nine months of jetting around the globe, enjoying all the opportunities that come with an Olympic medal, Gretchen Bleiler is ready to become a better snowboarder.l love to compete. I love the halfpipe, she said, but the last two years Ive been so focused on it. Theres so many other aspects to snowboarding like hitting jumps and rails, hitting the backcountry and riding powder. I think its good to refresh yourself on the sport in general just to become a better all-around rider.Its just great to have that freedom again.
Australia, of all places, is where Bleiler said in a sense she rediscovered herself. After hosting her personal camp for young riders at Mount Hood in Oregon in early August, she flew to New Zealand for two weeks to get serious about her offseason training. She then hopped over to Australia for some more on-snow practice and entered her first slopestyle contest in three years.
It was a no-pressure situation, said Bleiler, who had stopped competing in slopestyle after she blew out her right knee in December 2003 while training for a Triple Crown event in Breckenridge. I showed up to the slopestyle course the day of the event, didnt have a run planned out and just went with it.That she finished third was irrelevant, Bleiler said. What was consequential was how much fun she had and the rush of ideas that began running through her head while competing.All of the sudden it was like, Ooh, I wonder if I can do frontside 360? Bleiler said. Or, thats fun, I want to try a , maybe a  Slopestyle is a lot different than halfpipe because its a lot less technical and more about just having the balls to hit the jumps and go for it. Doing the contest, it just brought out that theres so many things I still want to learn.That doesnt mean halfpipe is necessarily taking a back seat for the upcoming season. While in Oregon, Bleiler began relearning the Michalchuk an off-axis backflip off the backside of the halfpipe that she spent weeks trying to perfect last offseason in New Zealand with her coach, Rick Bower, and the originator of the trick, Canadian pro Mike Michalchuk. Bleiler planned to be the first woman to pull the trick in competition last year, but abandoned it after she injured herself trying it in the Snowmass halfpipe.I know its one that I can do, said Bleiler. Its scary as hell. Its so different than any other trick in the halfpipe, but I know its within reach If this was a trick that every girl was doing, I wouldnt want it as bad. But thats something that makes me want it even more. It will progress womens snowboarding because when somebody has done it, more people will try it.The progression doesnt stop there. Bleiler has been working with the Aspen Skiing Co. to host a womens-only halfpipe contest and photo shoot at Snowmass in March. The Snow Angels Invitational will be the first of its kind, she said, with sponsors and complimentary gifts for participants that are deliberately female-oriented. Instead of free video games or Mountain Dew, riders will be treated to spa treatments, among other things.And most important, it will give the best female riders in the world a contest that is uniquely theirs.Just a place where the girls can ride together and push each other, she said. Something to grow womens snowboarding Everyone is so excited bout it.More than anything, Bleiler said she just wants to enjoy a regular winter after dealing with all the pressure that came with high Olympic expectations. Being the thoughtful, thorough person that she is, she said it was impossible to ignore the seriousness of competing on the world stage last winter.Its really hard for people to understand how stressful it is for these kids who go to the Olympics, Bleilers mother said. She practically couldnt eat for a whole year because she was so focused on what she wanted to do. I think shes ready not to have her heart in her throat for a whole year.
If Gretchen Bleiler has a flaw, maybe its that shes too trusting. She speaks honestly when asked a question and, in turn, has a tendency to believe people when she asks them questions about their intentions.This isnt really a problem if youre Gretchen Nobody. When youre a striking 25-year-old blonde who just happens to be one of the best snowboarders in the world, however, it can come back to bite you in the butt.On the day of the womens Olympic halfpipe final Bleiler told members of the assembled media the truth: She was more nervous than shed ever been in her life.A few days later she found herself reading a story in Sports Illustrated citing that she suffers from panic attacks.Some athletes just choose to lie and say the Olympics is no big thing, that its just another contest, she said. That wasnt me. But then all the sudden its Gretchen Bleiler is prone to anxiety.Truthfully, Ive never had a panic attack in my life.Bleiler was burned again this summer when she agreed to auction off the clothes she wore at the Olympics for Janes Clothes Off Our Backs charity which benefits childrens causes.The catch was that she was asked, just like the other celebrity participants, to pose sans her clothes in the magazine promoting the charity. In 2003 Bleiler agreed to do a shoot for FHMs Girls of the X Games issue in which she posed in a bikini and was photographed wearing nothing but body paint on the magazines cover.That whole experience left her with a bad taste in her mouth, but she agreed to do the Jane shoot because she felt strongly about the cause and trusted the magazines promise that she would have final say over the shot.Wrong decision, Bleiler said.The Polaroid the photographer handed her which she approved showed her from the back with a sheet strategically covering her rear end. When the magazine came out, however, Bleiler flipped back to her pictorial to find her whole backside exposed.It was just another one of those learning experiences, she said. I felt good after I left the shoot, but when I saw the picture it ended up showing up more than I wanted.Its not so much that the photographer lied, Im just sure the magazine picked the shots that they liked best, not the one I wanted. I didnt want my full ass on the pages of Jane magazine, but oh well. Hopefully they made a lot of money for charity.She hates her rear end, Bleilers mother adds. She wouldnt be able to do what she does without one, but she was very, very upset Shes taken two burns, so I dont think shes going to be posing naked in any more magazines any time soon.Still, in spite of those lessons, Gretchen Bleiler isnt going to stop being herself. If you want to know something about her, you can just ask.Like TV. Bleiler doesnt watch a lot. Shed rather be outside doing something surfing, mountain biking, anything. And even though she loves clothes, she hates shopping.Id like to tell someone what I want and then have them go get it for me, she said. My new agent is great because she can help me shop for dresses.And as to what she told Bode Miller when the two met up this summer at a celebrity golf tournament at Snowmass?Because of what happened at the Olympics, they changed a bunch of the team rules, said Bleiler, who rejoined U.S. Snowboarding in the offseason because Bower was named the teams head coach. I just kind of joked with him, being like, Thanks a lot, Bode now we cant drink at team events anymore.’As long as were being honest, what about the rivalry with Hannah Teter? The two slugged it out in the Olympic qualifiers, with Bleiler besting Teter four out of five times, only to watch Teter win the gold medal in Italy.Before the Olympics, we definitely werent friends, she said. Everybody in snowboarding is really nice to each other, but I would have never just called her out of the blue. But the Olympics really brought us together. We were both in the same situation and we were representing the United States. Instead of thinking of her as my biggest competition, it was like, Lets do this together. Now we talk on the phone, and we e-mail.Bleiler is even surprisingly honest when asked if any big-name sports celebrities approached her spontaneously at this past years ESPY awards in Los Angeles, where she was nominated for Best Female Action Sports Athlete, an award Teter won.No, that never happened, she said. Im definitely not there yet.Theres still plenty of time.Nate Petersons e-mail address is email@example.com