April 10, 2003
Hannah Teter sits at the bottom of the halfpipe, her disheveled brown hair hanging loosely from under her helmet. Her wild blue eyes shine with youth and mischief, like an unruly child who might run from a brush or a bathtub. Everything about her appearance, from the metal-studded leather belt that holds up her black snowboard pants to the way her upper lip curls ever so slightly, screams fight. She just turned 16 and, like, doesn’t even have to go to school anymore. She’s in the big leagues now, and she wants it bad.
She’s got her eyes on Aspen’s 22-year-old Gretchen Bleiler, who, after a marathon winning streak, beams with confidence. She’s – let’s admit it – an irresistible blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty. Her ruddy cheeks and wide, cheerleader smile beg to be photographed. Her ability to consistently execute an unbeatable combination of big, technical tricks in halfpipe competition might have something to do with her self-assurance too. She’s got the unshakable stature of someone whose life is truly blessed.
“I want to beat Gretchen,” Teter says, annoyed by incessant questions from the media, even at the relatively mellow U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix at Buttermilk last weekend. “She’s been winning for too long. If I just go really huge and throw out some really big tricks, I think I can take her down.”
Teter does pull some “really big tricks”, including a sky-high frontside 900. But a fall in her second run lands her in second place – again – losing her eighth-straight battle against Bleiler.
Despite warm smiles and congratulatory hugs for the cameras, Teter’s frustration is almost audible, like the quiet growl of a rabid pit bull who wags its tail, then bites your hand. You get the feeling she’s got her jaws locked around Bleiler’s lead, and she’s not letting go until Bleiler goes down.
A saturated schedule
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A whole slew of young, up-and-coming girls, in fact, are chomping at the bit right behind Teter. But they are the least of Bleiler’s worries.
She also has to think about photo shoots, film shoots, television appearances, frequent worldwide travel and sponsor obligations. And then there’s that little childhood dream of competing in the 2006 Olympics, which in snowboarding years is awfully far away.
That’s not to undermine Bleiler’s accomplishments, reflected in the season’s headlines: She nailed eight consecutive wins, including all the big contests and last weekend’s Grand Prix season finale at Buttermilk; she can do crippler 720s (three inverted rotations), one of the most difficult tricks ever executed by a female rider; she almost never falls in competition; and she goes huge, she’s got style, she’s sweet and beautiful, and pretty much rules.
But staying on top, as they say, is much harder than getting there.
“She’s at the end of her rope,” says Robin Gorog, Bleiler’s mom. Her face, with bright eyes and cheeky smile, is a mirror image of her daughter’s. Gazing up toward yet another halfpipe event, her expression reveals a mix of motherly concern and tremendous pride.
“It looks so glamorous from the outside, but it’s a whole lot of work,” Gorog continues. “She made it to the top, and she’s had an incredible string of victories, but it didn’t just come out of nowhere. She’s been working at this 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past two years. But it’s not just about snowboarding anymore. All this success means a whole lot of media attention and obligation to her sponsors. It’s a lot of pressure.”
The U.S. Grand Prix might have been the last halfpipe competition of the year, but Bleiler’s season isn’t quite over. She jumped on a plane to Norway only hours after the awards ceremony for the Arctic Challenge, an invitational competition hosted by snowboarding legend and former World Halfpipe Champion Terje Haakonsen. She’ll be one of four women attending. And following that, she’s off to Whistler for the X Games Global Championship, at which she and Kelly Clark will represent North America in the snowboarding superpipe comp.
“The last two weeks I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been in my entire life,” Bleiler says, squeezing in yet another interview during a short walk from the Buttermilk halfpipe down to the base to grab a quick meal before the Grand Prix finals. “It’s amazing because I’m getting all this publicity, and it’s exactly what I need. But it’s the end of the season, and I’m tired.”
It’s understandable she’d be a little weary after a “quick trip home,” which included a multiday film shoot with a crew from Warren Miller at Aspen Highlands; Chris Klug’s snowboarding camp; a TransWorld Snowboarding magazine trip to Silverton, Colo.; a photo shoot for Aspen Magazine; filming Aspen segments for ESPN; hosting a TV crew from Fox Sports Network that followed her around to film a “day in the life” piece for a show called 54321; and, of course, constant interviews with dozens of media organizations from all over the world.
Always upping the ante
But nobody’s complaining, especially Bleiler. Often described as a “fierce competitor,” she’s clearly aware of what she needs to do in order to maintain her lead. When I ask her about Teter’s feisty, competitive nature and her comment that “Gretchen does the same run every time,” Bleiler coolly begs to differ.
“That’s not true, actually. At the beginning of the year I was doing the crippler at the bottom of my run. Then I started doing it in the middle, and now I’m doing it at the top. I also learned crippler 720s, which I’m throwing in at the bottom now, so I don’t feel like I’m playing it safe. I’m always pushing myself, and I’m really happy with it.”
Pulling technical tricks at the top of the run versus the bottom is risky, explains Lee Crane, director of online media for TransWorld Snowboarding. “The first hit carries the most speed. It’s important that the rider maintain momentum for amplitude and speed through the run. So if a rider attempts their most difficult trick at the top and falls, it could jeopardize everything. But if they nail it, it’s hard to beat. Bleiler raised the bar by mastering her toughest trick up top.”
Now the other girls do it too.
“The whole women’s game will continue to be a game of one-upmanship,” says Bud Keene, U.S. Snowboard Team freestyle coach. “It’s hard for anyone to maintain a lead, but that’s the way it should be. Gretchen’s a great snowboarder and has been for a few years now. I don’t know why that breakthrough hadn’t happened yet, but it did this year. I can’t really guess why.”
No one can pinpoint exactly what clicked for her this season, not even Bleiler.
“It’s just kind of happening. I keep telling myself, `You can’t win them all, Gretchen,’ but the more I win, I set a higher standard for myself. I guess after so many wins, I have more confidence. Snowboarding is so mental, so that’s pretty huge.”
Confidence may be the only thing standing between Bleiler and the rat pack of young, hungry riders, because their ability certainly isn’t that far off. Take Lindsey Jacobellis, a 17-year-old from Bondville, Vt., who attempted a 900 on the first hit in last weekend’s competition – twice – and rung her bell so hard it took her a minute to get back up. She nailed it on her third try but slipped into fourth place.
“These girls are going for it,” says Crane. “They’re attempting big, technical tricks, even if it means crashing and losing the competition, just because they want it so bad. That’s never happened in women’s snowboarding before. Girls used to ride so conservatively because they didn’t want to lose points for a fall, but they also wouldn’t even make it above the lip. These girls are going huge and trying really technical tricks. It’s pushing the progression of the sport more than ever before and making it really exciting to watch.”
Says Jacobellis, “It’s going to take a big inverted maneuver and linking technical tricks to beat Gretchen. Some of these girls have it in them, and I would like to see it. But Gretchen’s an awesome rider, and she rocks. She deserves it every time she does win. There are a few riders on her heels, and hopefully I’m one of them.”
With three more years until the next Olympics, Jacobellis has time on her side, but does that mean Bleiler doesn’t?
“From when she was a little bitty thing, all she’s wanted to do is go to the Olympics. But for her, it’s one foot, other foot – one thing at a time,” says Gorog, who witnessed her daughter’s heartbreak when she lost the last spot on the 2002 Olympic team in a hairsplitting tiebreaker with her best friend and teammate, Tricia Byrnes.
“The Olympics are three years away,” Bleiler says. “This has been an awesome year, and I’m really happy with it. For the next couple years, I’ll just be mellow and pace myself.”
For now, she and 2002 Olympic halfpipe gold medalist Kelly Clark plan to do what any busy pro snowboarder would – rent a house near San Diego for the summer and do some surfing.
Alison Berkley is the former senior editor of TransWorld Snowboarding magazine. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org