3. Gretchen Bleiler | AspenTimes.com

3. Gretchen Bleiler

Nate Peterson

Christoph Ena/AP

Second at the Winter Olympics and No. 1 in Aspen’s heart. That pretty much tells the story of Gretchen Bleiler’s 2006.As to how the local halfpipe specialist slipped to third in the Aspen Times’ vote for newsmaker of the year, who knew a huge stack of white T-shirts and a handmade art movie could create such commotion?While other newsmakers and headlines divided Aspen, Bleiler’s silver-medal run through the Olympic halfpipe in Bardonecchia, Italy, in February did just the opposite, rallying a whole valley to cheer for its own.Her achievement also marked a first in Aspen’s storied tradition of winter sports competition: She will forever be remembered as the first Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club graduate to win an Olympic medal – something a whole string of great skiers could never accomplish. “When it was over, I couldn’t believe that I got second place in the Olympics and got a silver medal,” said Bleiler, who first had aspirations to reach the Olympics as a swimmer, then a hockey player, before taking up snowboarding as a young girl. “I made my dream come true.”After the silver medal was hers, Bleiler spoke candidly about the expectations she placed on herself leading up to the Winter Games and admitted she had never experienced such nervousness. She used the energy of the crowd and the Green Day song blasting through her iPod earphones to block the tension.”I think when you work your entire life toward a goal, then finally achieve it and wake up the morning of the competition, I don’t see how you could not be nervous,” she said.

Bleiler wasn’t the only local to compete in Italy in February. Basalt’s Jason Smith, another AVSC alumnus, finished sixth in the inaugural Olympic men’s boardercross, then returned to Basalt for a parade down Midland Avenue.

Bleiler’s triumphant homecoming celebration didn’t come until late March, after a whirlwind month of appearances and interviews wedged between a World Cup victory in Lake Placid, N.Y., and runner-up halfpipe finish at the U.S. Open in Vermont. Before she returned stateside to be the official starter at the Daytona 500, she posed for the cover of Sports Illustrated with her fellow U.S. snowboarding medalists and sat for interviews with NBC’s Bob Costas and the Today Show’s Matt Lauer and Katie Couric.

Once back in Aspen, she rode down Main Street with Mayor Helen Klanderud on an antique red fire engine before a celebration at the Gondola Plaza. Klanderud proclaimed March 25 Gretchen Bleiler Day and former Aspen Skiing Co. President Pat O’Donnell honored Bleiler with a lifetime season pass.”What we do have – because it’s been so fun watching you, and you’re a fantastic role model for all of our kids and our adults as well – is a small piece of plastic, which was just delivered over here by a Briggs armored car,” O’Donnell joked. “We want you to stick around Aspen. You can’t leave. You can’t go to any other resorts.”Bleiler doesn’t plan on doing any such thing, although the stardom from her medal kept her on the road for most of the year. She attended the ESPYs in Los Angeles after being nominated for Best Female Action Sports Athlete. She also met the president at an official ceremony at the White House, threw out the first pitch at a home Rockies game, and headed off to Oregon’s Mount Hood to host her own signature snowboard camp before jetting to New Zealand and Australia for on-snow training.As for 2007, Bleiler said she is looking forward to a more relaxing winter without the immense pressure of the Olympics. She plans to compete in some slopestyle competitions and spend more time in the backcountry, instead of focusing strictly on halfpipe.

“I think it’s good to refresh yourself on the sport in general, just to become a better all-around rider,” she said. “It’s just great to have that freedom again.”