Bleiler: Life in ‘the middle zone’ and opening up about athletes’ mental health
Gretchen Bleiler, Olympian and Aspen snowboard superstar, was dominating her sport, winning pop culture and icon awards, and racking up thousands of miles crisscrossing the globe.
She also was racking up concussions, at first few and far between, but then four back to back in 2012 that began to change everything. She retired in 2014, still struggling to recover from a training accident in 2012 in Park City that shattered an eye socket, broke her nose and, yep, in which she suffered a serious concussion.
“It’s been a tough time since I retired,” she said. “The bigger picture was everything that was my life — career, community, marriage, health — all went away all at once.”
The pillars holding her up in life were crumbling around Bleiler. She was now in what she calls “the middle zone.”
“Everyone told me it would be hard transition. I didn’t realize it. I was on that train,” she said. “My whole life had been snowboarding, my whole community. I didn’t realize how much I was ‘on’ for 15-plus years. I was just on all the time, whether it was competing, working with sponsors, hosting, photo shoots. It didn’t quit, nor did I.”
She added, “It took me a long time to slow down. I didn’t know how to live. I was used to hotel rooms and constant travel and schedules. It was a relearning process. How do I live in one place? I didn’t know how to do that.”
People had forewarned her, sure, but she still wasn’t prepared for what would follow her high octane, globe-trotting snowboard career. That, along with new mental health struggles from the back-to-back concussions.
“Post-concussions, I worked with lots of doctors, and I haven’t gotten too far,” she said. “I think we are still in the dark ages when it comes to the brain and concussions.”
The go go years
Bleiler began snowboarding at 11, and the young star’s trajectory took her around the globe and to worldwide fame.
The Ohio native and her family relocated 1991 to Aspen, where she attended middle and high school.
“I joined AVSC when I was 15 years old in 1996,” she said. “It was the first time I had people to push me and give me technique and teach me how to compete.”
She was a pro by 2000. In 2003, she had eight straight wins: the World Superpipe Championships, X Games Halfpipe gold medalist, U.S. Open champion and the Overall Grand Prix title.
By 2006, she was Olympian, a silver medalist in the half pipe, overall Grand Prix Champion and an FIS World Cup first place.
The medals, and hits, kept stacking up. In 2008 Bleiler was the X Games Halfpipe gold medalist and Winter Dew Tour Superpipe champion.
She qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and took 11th place. She won the X Games Superpipe gold that year.
In 2014, she announced her retirement after struggling to recover from the 2012 training accident, which had thwarted her from making the 2014 U.S. Winter Olympics team.
This marked the end of her snowboarding career and a monumental shift in everything Bleiler had known or ever done before.
A darker reality
She was already on the athlete speaking circuit, where she had honed her story about challenge and success in the sport. However, she recognized the entire story wasn’t being told.
“It’s about the middle range and those struggling with mental health,” she said. “We need to be talking about it and not feeling so alone in the experience. We must bring people out of the shadows. There is a link between mental health, cumulative concussions and what we are learning about CTE.”
Athletes like herself who had dedicated their bodies to a sport only to be physically and mentally crippled at such a rapid pace, post career, are slowly starting to open up to the public.
“It’s such a sad end-of-life story. These athletes who we were all so inspired by, who made the impossible possible, their mental and physical health can be so deteriorated and debilitating. Their life can become tragic. It should never be like this,” said Bleiler.
“No one knows how to treat CTE. So many people are not talking about what they are going through. It’s shameful and isolating by yourself. And there’s delayed changes, many times years later. It’s confusing, what is happening to my personality, why is this happening, am I going crazy?”
To rebuild the pillars in her life, Bleiler began that deeper journey she had ultimately been craving. She had already received her mediation certification in 2014 through the Chopra Center. She was ready for more.
The shadow side of glory
Bleiler has suffered mental ailments from her choice of profession. At first, it was typical athletic nerves before competitions.
“I learned at a very early age that I wasn’t safe feeling as deeply as I felt. I learned how to be an emotional avoidant,” she said.
More than a couple of times, she vomited in a garbage bag while waiting for her turn to hurl herself down an ice sheet, at times reaching heights of over 30 feet above the ground, upside down.
Bleiler would somehow pull herself to the start gate, breathe in the energy, and make her many, many practice runs come to fruition in front of thousands of people, hundreds of times.
“Trying to qualify for the Olympic team for the first time was a pivotal experience for me,” she said. “I wanted to go to the Olympics so badly. It was a childhood dream since I was 7. I so tightly clenched onto this goal.”
Bleiler and her best friend ended up in a record-breaking triple-way tie for the Olympic spot, and she didn’t make the team.
“I was relieved it was over,” she said. “That experience to me was disturbing. I made this choice then to try and find joy out of the process. I am going to enjoy this thing I love, whether I make it to the Olympics or not.”
A lesson learned
The future Olympian learned how to take a step back and take the fear out of the moment and instead breathe in gratitude and enjoy a larger purpose, she said.
“I brought back the joy into what I was doing. That became my blueprint for success. This is what was responsible for getting me to the Olympics and winning medals. A huge part in how we do anything is equally important to the goals that we have,” said Bleiler.
She changed her intention the following season. She was now 100 percent connected to what she was doing. Her mental game was on track. She was enjoying the sport. She had shifted her state of consciousness.
Bleiler’s been living in the valley full time for the past seven years.
“I’ve created community again,” she said. “I grew up in Aspen, I went to Aspen High School, and it’s surprising how many people from high school are living back in the area. My closest friends are now parents and running in different circles, but we are just as close as before. I’ve got my new community mixed in with old childhood friends. It’s great.”
Now focused on bringing to light the impacts of concussions, she’s telling a new story for the first time. She’s finally getting comfortable and making a contribution to dealing with scary topics such as CTE and mental health.
She is still active in transformation coaching and teaching meditation in Aspen.
Bleiler also has some larger-scale projects around mental health, concussions, CTE, and that middle zone between professional athletics and creating a new rest of life.
The only remnants visible of the former Olympian’s halfpipe life are a snowboard and boots outside her front door. And a set of skis.
“I skied for the first time yesterday,” said Bleiler. “I mean I’ve skied before, when I was younger in fifth and sixth grade. Look, here’s me going down the mountain,” she said as she showed off her first ski endeavor in three decades on her phone.
It was apt on her 42nd birthday last Monday that she was open to old challenges with a new mindset.
She’s still riding, though not nearly as much as she used to.
“I go out when I feel like it, definitely on powder days,” she said. “There’s nothing like the Highland Bowl with fresh powder. Skinning up Tiehack is good exercise and a meditative experience in of itself. I’m into split boarding in the backcountry, when conditions are safe.”
Bleiler’s home is the exact opposite of the loud and vibrant personality she brought to the halfpipe all those years.
Sure, it’s white like snow, but the soft music, bubbling water feature, stacked self-help and healing books at the center of the living room, and sophisticated, sleek white furniture and storage throughout her space create a Zen den.
Looking beyond the bouquet of spring flowers, her window seat overlooking trees with ever-changing views of the outdoors, is her happy spot.
She’s had her Aspen condo since 2003. Over the 20 years, Bleiler has made the space more airy and bright with vaulted ceilings and new lights, but the charm of the home keeps her content.
“It’s still great, the perfect little place,” she said. “I have neighbors who have been here just as long.”
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