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Bleiler’s dropping in

Tim Mutrie
Gretchen Bleiler of Aspen grabs her board during a superpipe training run Thursday at the Winter X Games at Buttermilk. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.
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Her right knee isn’t the problem.”I don’t even think about it anymore,” snowboard superpipe specialist Gretchen Bleiler said this week on the eve of the Winter X Games, 13 months removed from a knee injury that wiped out her 2003-04 season.”The thing I’m missing out on is confidence. I still have all the tricks, and I know I can ride up to that level, it’s just the believing part; and stopping thinking so much,” she said.The 23-year-old Bleiler – who grew up in Snowmass Village, attended Aspen public schools and now lives in Aspen – won eight superpipe contests in a row during her breakout campaign of 2002-03, including X Games gold.Then in early December 2003, during a slopestyle training session at the first major competition of the winter in Breckenridge, she overshot a landing and smacked down on flats. The knee popped and a few days later she was under the knife for a partially torn ACL.During a five-month rehabilitation period, following a couple horrid, forgettable weeks in a straight-leg brace, she spent five hours a day at the gym. “Eventually, you make progress,” she said. “I was trying to get my right quad as big as my left quad, which was a struggle. I’ve never had that skinny a leg in my life.”

Bleiler’s superpipe comeback is now two contests old, with two fourth-place finishes in Grand Prix events at Breck last month and Mount Bachelor Jan. 8.”I’m pleased with that, but I’m not ecstatic,” she said. “When you come back from any injury you have to deal with the mental side, and I think that’s the hardest part. I felt myself holding back and my amplitude [air out of the pipe] wasn’t as great as the year before.””I wasn’t letting go. Really, if you can just let go, the bigger the amplitude gets, the easier it all goes – it’s smooth and easy – and the better it looks.”Bleiler had planned to compete in the Snowboarding World Championships last weekend at Whistler, B.C., but she canceled. Instead, she came home to ride and train in the Snowmass pipe.”It’s the best thing I could’ve done,” she said. “I definitely have my groove back, I’m pushing the amplitude now, pushing myself past the comfort zone, and I’m not holding back.”During the recent Snowmass homestand Bleiler also learned a new trick – the 900. Only two other women in snowboarding, defending X Games superpipe champion Hannah Teter, and Elena Hight, have the 900 in their repertoire.”Because I just learned this 900 a few days ago, this will be the first time I’ll throw it in a contest,” she said. “And I’m really excited.”

The preliminaries of the X Games women’s snowboard superpipe contest are tonight from 7 to 9 p.m. at Buttermilk; the finals are slated for prime-time Saturday from 7:30 to 9 p.m.At yesterday’s practice session, the first day of the games, Bleiler and the rest of the world’s finest pipe riders got their first crack at the Buttermilk superpipe.Bleiler, for one, liked what she found.”It’s one of the longest pipes I’ve ever ridden – like eight solid hits,” she said. “And it’s a really good shape.”For her competition run, Bleiler is planning to throw her signature move first – the crippler 540, which is basically a flip with one-and-a-half spins. A backside 540, a frontside 540 and then, for the finale, the 900, round out the major movements of her choreographed routine.”I have a run that no one’s going to have and I think if I can keep it together mentally, I can do well,” she said. “There aren’t really any girls out there throwing cripplers and that’s kind of what distinguishes me. And I’ll be doing it first-hit, big and clean; the judges always like that.”

In Bleiler’s absence last season, Teter, a Vermont native, ascended to the top of the sport, dominating the contest circuit. Teter also won the first Grand Prix at Breck. In 2001-02, Olympic gold medalist and X Games golden girl Kelly Clark, another Vermonster, was the queen of the pipe.So who will it be this year, this weekend?”I really try not to think about beating Hannah or beating Kelly; it’s not what I’m thinking about. I’m more focused on shoving myself out of the comfort zone, pushing the amplitude, throwing the tricks I know big and clean, and always landing clean. And if I accomplish that, I’ll be happy no matter what in the end,” Bleiler said.Yesterday, Bleiler was still trying to dial in her run.”It takes a while to get used to these pipes, because they’re all so different, so I’ve just been doing straight airs and trying to get a good line. I’m going to throw a variation of the run, coming up here next,” she said.Stand clear Aspen, world, and don’t blink – Bleiler’s dropping in.Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com


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