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A tale of two Olympians

Nate Peterson
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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Same home mountains. Same age. Same Olympic dream. Different expectations.That might be the best way to describe local Olympians Gretchen Bleiler and Jason Smith, both 24.When Bleiler drops into the halfpipe in Bardonecchia, Italy, on Monday, Feb. 13, she will be carrying the weight of expectations that have followed her as far back as 2003, when she swept every major women’s halfpipe competition in the world.

Whether she likes it or not, Aspen’s resident snowboarding goddess is one of the most prominent American athletes at the Olympics – second only to Bode Miller and Shaun White, maybe, and possibly the highest profile American female athlete.She won four out of five Olympic halfpipe qualifiers this season, and also won the World Cup women’s halfpipe event in Bardonecchia last February after winning gold at the Winter X Games. There have also been appearances in national magazines such as Time, Forbes, Sports Illustrated and ESPN, not to mention a slew of promotions tied to the Olympics, including a commercial for 24 Hour Fitness that’s been in heavy rotation for the past month.On the opposite end of the spectrum is Smith, a boardercrosser who grew up in Basalt and whose spot on the U.S. Snowboarding Olympic Team wasn’t set until January, after he won his first World Cup event in Italy.At the Winter X Games, Smith, wearing his trademark bandana and clad in a neon green snowboarding suit, admitted he was still getting accustomed to all the media attention that comes with competing at the Winter Olympics.

“It’s still a little bit surreal with everything that’s going on right now,” Smith said. “It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve been at my house one day in January, and it’s been a little tiring, but the opportunity to be going to the Olympics is great.”As for medal expectations, Smith’s name hasn’t been batted around much. Two of his three American teammates in boardercross, Nate Holland and Seth Wescott, as well as female boardercrosser Lindsey Jacobellis, have grabbed most of the hype as the sport prepares for its Olympic debut, Thursday, Feb. 16.Smith’s just fine with that. He’s used to being overlooked, he said.He noted that another local snowboard racer, 2002 parallel giant slalom bronze medalist Chris Klug, garnered more attention than he did in the run-up to the Olympics, only to fall short of making the team because of mediocre results (see related story).

Bleiler, meanwhile, has never been overlooked since returning from a knee injury last season – though that hasn’t necessarily been ideal, either. Her roster of corporate sponsors ranges from Snickers to T-Mobile. Her beautiful face, and her swimsuit-model body help move magazines off the racks.All that exposure can have unwanted consequences.Just days before the Winter X Games began, Bleiler admitted the media attention had been “nonstop” and said that “if it gets to be too much, I won’t hesitate to say no and not talk to some people.”Then, five minutes before the preliminary round of the X Games women’s halfpipe competition was to commence, Bleiler opted to pull out of the field and forgo the opportunity to defend her title. Her mother, Robin Gorog, told the assembled crowd at the base of Buttermilk that her daughter was “mentally exhausted.”

Bleiler was the third female Olympic athlete that day to withdraw from competition, following friend and rival halfpipe competitor Hannah Teter of Vermont – another medal favorite – and Jacobellis, who tweaked her knee in a boardercross practice run.”She was just out of gas,” said Drew Johnson, one of Bleiler’s agents. “She fell during one of her practice runs, and she realized she just didn’t have it.”The break from competition, and the accompanying media attention, seems to have had its desired effect. Before she left for Italy last week, Bleiler sounded upbeat on the phone with The Aspen Times and expressed hope of returning home with a gold medal in tow.

Doing so had been the objective all along, she said, and with that goal now clearly in sight, she is ready to fulfill expectations. Not the expectations of the media or her corporate sponsors, but rather the expectations she has held for herself ever since she was a little girl.”I’ve always dreamed of being an Olympian,” she said. “It’s always been a dream of mine.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com


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