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Meet Aspen’s Olympians

Nate Peterson and Jon Maletz
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith
ALL |

ASPEN – Sending athletes to the Olympics isn’t unusual for Aspen. Going back to skiers Max Marolt in 1960 and Andy Mill in 1976 and 1980, along with gold-medal cyclist Alexi Grewal in 1984, this small town has always produced more than its share of athletes.

More recently, snowboarders Chris Klug and Gretchen Bleiler have won Olympic medals in 2002 and 2006, respectively.

But 2010 will be remembered for taking things to a new level. Both Klug and Bleiler are headed for Vancouver – Bleiler coming straight from a gold-medal performance in the Winter X Games last month at Buttermilk – but a whole new crop of winter athletes will join those veterans on the U.S. Olympic team.

There is figure skater Jeremy Abbott, an Aspen native who moved away as a teenager to hone his skills, and Jake Zamansky, an alpine skier who had to fight his way back onto the U.S. Olympic squad by going out on his own. Simi Hamilton, a 22-year-old college student, was completely surprised to win an Olympic spot on the cross-country team in January, and then there is Olympic veteran Casey Puckett, who will attend his fifth Winter Games this year but will compete in skiercross, which is on the Olympic calendar for the first time. Puckett is fighting off a recent shoulder injury to finally win that elusive Olympic medal.

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It’s an impressive roster for a town of a few thousand people. If you don’t already know these athletes, then here’s your chance to get acquainted.

In a small box. At her second house in the seaside town of Carlsbad, Calif. That’s where Gretchen Bleiler’s Olympic silver medal rests. At least for now.

“It’s kind of a traveling medal at this point,” said Bleiler. “Sometimes people want me to bring it to certain media opps. It has a good life. It travels around the country at this point.

“It’ll probably always be a traveling medal, just because I’m a traveling girl.”

Is she ever.

Arguably the biggest name in women’s snowboarding at 28, Bleiler estimates she spends only six weeks out of the year in her hometown of Aspen. Another two months is spent in Carlsbad.

The rest of the time she is on the road competing, freeriding for film and photo shoots, or globetrotting for her sponsors. Since winning that Olympic medal in halfpipe in Turin in 2006, Bleiler has seemingly been everywhere: On the giant Reuters video screen in Times Square for a Blackberry ad, on Conan O’Brien’s couch, on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, rubbing elbows with celebrities in Los Angeles while picking up an ESPY, atop the pitcher’s mound at Coors Field to throw out a first pitch, and an official starter at the Daytona 500.

She’s even appeared on a Coke can.

It’s a life that would make most envious – the four Winter X Games golds, the myriad endorsements, the magazine-ready looks – but underneath it all lies a relentless work ethic and a relatively unknown footnote.

After graduating high school, it was Bleiler’s decision not to attend college but to stay home and focus on snowboarding. Though it led Bleiler to where she is today, the choice was perhaps the hardest of her life – especially after her friends headed off to college, leaving her in Aspen to wake up at 4:30 each morning to wait tables at Main Street Bakery.

“Some of my friend’s moms would come in and tell me how my friends were doing, and I definitely was doubting myself,” Bleiler said. “But secretly I knew that if I worked as hard as I could, and set goals and had focus, I knew I could make it happen.”

Not overnight, by any stretch. The setbacks include failing to earn the final spot on the 2002 Olympic team by a fraction to friend Tricia Byrnes, then missing nearly all of the 2004 season after blowing out her knee.

By her own account, Bleiler missed the gold medal in Turin by failing to hold a grab on one trick (pipe legend Todd Richards, commentating for NBC, said Bleiler’s run was the winner). And at the Winter X Games last year, she had a vicious fall in the primetime women’s final, dribbling the back of her head down the 22-foot pipe, that haunted her for most of the season.

She has come back from it all stronger than before, dead set on leaving Vancouver with another medal – this one made of gold. After winning her fourth Winter X gold in the pipe last month -two more than any other woman – Bleiler looks primed to do just that. She competes on Feb. 18.

Once that’s done, Bleiler may slow down a little.

“I won’t say definitely, but I think this will be my last Olympics,” Bleiler said. “That’s even more incentive for me to be hungry and want to give everyone a good show.”

-Nate Peterson

To reach his first Winter Olympics, Aspen native Jeremy Abbott had to leave home twice.

Not an easy choice to make, whether at 14 or 23.

Abbott, who started skating at age 2 and competing at age 4 after seeing an exhibition in Aspen by 1980 Olympic men’s gold medalist Robin Cousins, had come as far as his coach at the local skating club could take him by the time he finished middle school in 1999.

“Peggy Behr, who was his coach, said that he had the ability and that he needed to make a move if he wanted to get the most out of that ability,” said Abbott’s mother, Allison Scott.

Abbott left Aspen for Colorado Springs to work under coach Tom Zakrajsek of the Broadmoor Skating Club. He lived with a host family for a year, before his parents made the move to the Springs in 2000.

In the decade under Zakrajsek, Abbott grew from a promising novice skater into a national champion at the senior level.

To do so, he had to grow up first. In the Olympic year of 2005-2006, a year after he’d won a junior national title, Abbott competed in his first international competition, in Germany, and “got eaten alive,” his mother said.

That same season, after failing to make it out of the Midwest sectionals, and losing out on a shot at nationals and an Olympic berth, Abbott realized something had to change.

“That was a big eye-opener for him,” Scott said. “He said, ‘I need to do something to get better.'”

That something was to take nothing for granted. When he was given his second international assignment the following season, to compete at the Finlandia Trophy in Vantaa, Finland, Abbott made the most of the opportunity, becoming the second American male to win the competition.

From there, Abbott won sectionals and advanced to his first senior nationals in 2007 where he finished fourth, the best showing in 20 years for a first-time skater. He followed that performance with a bronze medal at the 2007 Four Continents Championships at World Arena in Colorado Springs – his home ice – after three-time U.S. national champion Johnny Weir dropped out.

Two years later, Abbott was virtually unbeatable: He won gold at the Cup of China, the Grand Prix Final – a first for an American male – and nationals, winning both the short program and the free skate.

Then he came crashing down. At the 2009 World Championships, Abbott self-destructed, finishing 10th in both the short program and the free skate for a disappointing 11th overall.

With the Olympics a year away, and feeling that his relationship with Zakrajsek had reached a plateau, Abbott again found himself needing to make a change.

“He was burned out,” Scott said. “He wanted to take a little more control of his career, have more of a voice.”

He opted to move out from under his parents’ roof for a second time and relocate to Detroit, where he set to work with Yuka Sato, a former world champion from Japan.

From the get-go, Abbott knew he had made the right decision.

“She and Jeremy just clicked,” Scott said. “Once they started working together, there was a lot of artistic collaboration.”

That rapport has produced results in Abbott’s attitude and on the ice. At last month’s nationals, with an Olympic berth again on the line, Abbott skated, as Scott said, “like he knew he was going to win.”

And he did, walking away with his second straight gold.

Now comes his chance to win the one medal that he has dreamed of since he first began skating in Aspen. He competes Feb. 16 in the short program and Feb. 18 in the free skate.

A podium spot in Vancouver: What a homecoming that would make.

-Nate Peterson

The legendary Bill Kidd once said that old ski racers never die.

Casey Puckett of Old Snowmass embodies that line better than anyone.

Born in 1972, Puckett’s first Olympic appearance came at the1992 Albertville Winter Games where, seven months before his 20th birthday, he finished 25th in the giant slalom. Eighteen years later, with four Olympic appearances behind him, and some eight years after retiring from the alpine World Cup circuit, Puckett, 37, is still chasing Olympic glory.

The road to Vancouver, and the Winter Games’ inaugural skiercross competition, has been full of nasty bumps, but Puckett steadfastly believes he has one more great race left in him.

This, despite having unexpected shoulder surgery on Jan. 13, just three days after dislocating his AC joint in a World Cup race in France – a race he was winning before he crashed on the final turn. After two weeks of encouraging progress in physical therapy, Puckett re-aggravated the shoulder last weekend during some on-snow training at the Winter X Games at Buttermilk, the site of his greatest skiercross triumphs.

Since then, he has been working frantically to get the shoulder in decent enough shape to push out of the gates on Feb. 21 at Cypress Mountain outside of Vancouver.

The round-the-clock rehab has included sessions in the hyperbaric chamber at the WIN Health Institute in Basalt, physical therapy at the Aspen Club, as well as acupuncture treatments.

“It’s not doing as well as I hoped, but I’m throwing everything at it to try and pull off a miracle healing,” said Puckett, who coached at the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club for a stint once his alpine racing days were over.

He added that the only thing that will keep him out of competing in Vancouver is if the shoulder is so “painful and weak that it would be a danger to myself and others.”

Not likely to happen. Puckett may not be indestructible, but his will is indomitable. This is a guy who once ruled the skiercross circuit on two bad knees, putting off surgery against a specialist’s recommendation. He has made a career of pushing through the kind of pain that would make lesser men take up crossword puzzles.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Puckett said. “I doubt that I’m going to be 100 percent to be able to power out of the gate, I’m just hoping that it’s strong enough for me to have an OK start, make some passes and move onto the finals.”

While Puckett is certain he will compete in Vancouver, he’s not so sure about his lone U.S. skiercross teammate Daron Rahlves, the former downhill great who dislocated his hip in a crash at the Winter X Games. One of Puckett’s pals and teammates from his days on the U.S. alpine squad, Rahlves, at 36, was also eying gold in Vancouver.

“He’s in worse shape than I am,” Puckett said. “I think for a dislocated hip, that’s a pretty small window for recovery. Hips are pretty painful to land on, and the course in Cypress, there’s a lot of air. You’re landing hard a lot.”

With so much on the line, however, it wouldn’t be smart to count either man out.

-Nate Peterson

It would have been easier to walk away when he was told he was not good enough. When he was sacked after nine seasons of service. When paying his own way on the World Cup circuit meant risking bankruptcy.

How far would you go to chase your dream? To reach his, skier Jake Zamansky has done what has come naturally for nearly three decades: Keep charging.

“I haven’t been podium on the World Cup, but I feel like what I’ve been achieving is great for me considering what I’m up against,” the Aspen skier says. “It makes me appreciate my success that much more. … I’m really glad that two years ago I decided to continue racing.”

Through turmoil, Zamansky has triumphed. In late January, he was named to the U.S. Olympic Alpine Ski Team. At 28, Zamansky is the oldest of 13 first-timers on the 22-athlete squad.

The athlete who took his first turns at Buttermilk at 2 years old will compete in Feb. 21’s giant slalom at Whistler Creekside.

“Once I get up there it’ll really sink in,” Zamansky says, “but I’m trying to keep focused and keep a cool head.

“I’ll be really excited when it’s over, and then I can turn another page in my book.”

Zamansky’s goal to reach the Olympic Games was first forged when he watched Tommy Moe win gold and silver at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. The realization of the goal, however, has been bittersweet.

In June 2008, the U.S. Ski Team let him go after nine seasons on the B, C and Development squads for failure to meet United States Ski and Snowboard Association criteria. Consequently, Zamansky had to lean heavily on sponsors for funding and serve as his own ski technician and travel agent last winter.

Under trying circumstances, he produced the best season of his career. He qualified for a second run in a World Cup race for the first time in his career in Alta Badia, Italy, where he wound up 24th. He finished 27th in his next start to qualify for his first World Championships. In February 2009, he took 15th in a World Cup GS in Sestriere, Italy.

“The experience has really showed me what I’m capable of,” Zamansky says, “… just defying all the odds.”

The U.S. Ski Team reinstated him this summer. And, after strong results in the season’s first two giant slaloms in Beaver Creek and Val d’Isere in December, Zamansky emerged as the U.S.’s second-best skier in the discipline, behind Ted Ligety.

The effort secured his spot in Vancouver. His parents – and the world – will be watching.

“I’ve been working a long time for this, and for it to actually become a reality is nice. It’s kind of a satisfying feeling, that all the hard work paid off,” he says. “I expect to go there and perform at the top of my game. I’m going to do everything in my power to go as fast as I can on that day, and I really hope it’s good enough. … I think I can ski just as fast as anybody else.

“I want to be able to look at it as a whole at the end and feel like I didn’t hold anything back. There’s no one result that’s going to make me happier than any other if I don’t hold back.”

-Jon Maletz

Don’t get your hopes up.

That is what coaches told Aspen’s Simi Hamilton. The U.S. cross country team being awarded two extra Olympic spots, based on a new quota system, was, at best, wishful thinking. But an 11th?

“[U.S. coach Pete Vordenberg] told me, ‘I want you to prepare like you’re going to the Olympics but, to be honest with you, it doesn’t really look good for you,'” Hamilton remembers.

“I’d definitely be lying to say this wasn’t a surprise.”

Hamilton’s mother Ruthie Brown sure was shocked. When she received news of her son’s last-second selection to the Olympic team in a voicemail message Jan. 28, she pulled over on the highway and started jumping up and down on the road shoulder.

“It sinks in a little more each day, which is awesome,” says the 22-year-old Hamilton. “I wake up a little more fired up every single day. I actually have to pinch myself to make sure this is all actually happening. I don’t think it will fully sink in until I’m 35 years old and have to get a real job.”

In fall 2008, Hamilton opted to stay in school at Middlebury College in Vermont instead of making a serious push for Vancouver.

In April and May, the geology major was working on his thesis, studying lake-bottom sediment in an effort to interpret past climate-change events. He never made it out of the lab or out from behind his computer to train, but did bring himself within a few credits of graduation.

“For me personally, being able to go to school and check off my academic boxes was super helpful. It really helped with the development of not only my capabilities as an athlete, but as a person,” Hamilton says. “I realized the smart decision was to get school out of the way so I could be able to focus all my energy and attention on making the Olympics [in 2014].”

And focus he did. But things didn’t go exactly according to plan.

Hamilton burst onto the scene at early January’s national championships, winning the sprint and taking sixth in the 1.5-kilometer classic. On Jan. 26, he won a sprint qualification race at the U23 world championships in Hinterzarten, Germany, by nearly a second.

Vordenberg delivered the life-changing news soon after.

Hamilton’s big moment comes Feb. 17, in the individual sprint in Vancouver.

“There’s so many things I’m really psyched for. … Just being able to share [this experience] with so many other athletes from so many other countries that come to this place for the exact purpose, you get that kind of nostalgic feeling that transcends money and fame,” Hamilton says. “This is a pretty special thing that happens only once every four years. … Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.”

-Jon Maletz

Chris Klug jokingly refers to it as the world’s most expensive tattoo.

The large scar extending from his sternum to his right oblique is a constant reminder of the Aspen snowboarder’s second chance, and his perseverance.

Maybe that was the reason why he was undeterred after breaking his right hand and wrist during an early December training run shortly before two Olympic qualifiers in Telluride. After all, the 37-year-old is no stranger to adversity.

In the early 1990s, Klug was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a chronic disease of the liver. On July 28, 2000, Klug received a liver transplant at Denver’s University Hospital.

“At that point I was focused on trying to prepare for the race of my life,” Klug says. “I was just hoping to get a second chance, to survive.”

He did much more than survive. Roughly 18 months later, Klug stood on the podium at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, with a bronze medal draped around his neck and that trademark smile on his face.

“It sure felt like I had won the gold,” he says.

Some special guests were in the crowd that night: The family of the 13-year-old Denver boy, killed by a gunshot wound, who donated the liver that saved the snowboarder’s life.

Later this month Klug will have his third – and likely his last – shot at Olympic gold in parallel giant slalom. After narrowly missing a berth in the 2006 Games in Turin (his appeal to the U.S. Olympic Committee for inclusion was denied), Klug has made it back to winter sport’s grand stage.

It wasn’t easy. After failing to make U.S. Snowboarding’s A team and being denied funding this fall, Klug started his own squad – America’s Snowboarding Team – and secured sponsors, top coaches and training opportunities.

In addition to his untimely hand injury, Klug entered December’s and January’s qualifying period having logged one top 10 in his previous 48 World Cup starts. He had not been on the podium in a World Cup race since March 2004.

Like that could stop him.

“I guess you could call this season a comeback,” says Klug, who took sixth in PGS at the 1998 Winter Games in Japan, where snowboarding made its Olympic debut. “I’ve overcome a lot this year.”

Klug finished fifth in Jan. 6’s qualifier in Kreischberg, Austria, then eighth at Stoneham Mountain Resort in Quebec on Jan. 24.

One day later, he was officially named to the Olympic squad, joining Massachusetts’ Tyler Jewell – the lone male alpine snowboarding athlete to compete at the 2006 Games.

Klug’s 2002 bronze – “probably the coolest piece of jewelry I own,” he says – sits on his fireplace mantle. His chance to add to the collection comes Feb. 27.

More important, however, Klug says he is savoring the moment and his good fortune.

“I’m grateful for every day. … I’ll try to take it all in and enjoy it – that’s been my mantra this season,” he adds.

“Now, I’ve obviously got nothing to lose.”

-Jon Maletz


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