Bleiler all but locks up Olympic berth | AspenTimes.com

Bleiler all but locks up Olympic berth

Devon O'Neil

Summit Daily/Kristin Skvorc

BRECKENRIDGE ” Describing her first run at Saturday’s U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix halfpipe final, Gretchen Bleiler started technically and ended emotionally.

“I went crippler, backside 540, frontside 540, backside air to frontside 900 … to aaaaaahhhhhh!”

It was hard to mistake Bleiler’s grinning glee (read: relief) after she all but locked up an Olympic spot. By winning Saturday’s final with a near-perfect first run ” a result which came on the heels of her runner-up finish Wednesday in the Grand Prix opener ” Bleiler virtually guaranteed she has made up for the heartbreak she endured four years ago.

Each U.S. rider’s best two results among the five Grand Prix events count toward Olympic qualifying, so Bleiler’s 1-2 should be plenty to hold up.

Of course, the better odds are that she will win again before the team is announced, and enter the Turin, Italy, Winter Games with two victories to her name.

Regardless of how she gets there, Bleiler has come a long way since 2002. That year, as a 20-year-old, she finished the Grand Prix series tied with fellow American Tricia Byrnes, but Byrnes earned the Olympic berth on a tiebreaker.

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Bleiler looked like a seasoned veteran this week.

“That year I had never gone through the Olympic-qualifying experience, and I definitely let the pressure and the hype get to me,” Bleiler said, glowing in the finish area. “And now I’m still nervous, so nervous, but I’m able to pull it together just because of my experience.”

Bleiler kicked off her 44.5-point (on a 50-point scale) winning run with what she said was her biggest and smoothest crippler of the year. Landing the trick eased her nerves, she said.

“That’s my trick, and when I land that perfectly, everything else is just like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this,'” Bleiler said.

Sixteen-year-old Elena Hight of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., took second (41.6) to complete a stellar week of her own. She finished third on Wednesday, and looks like a good bet to represent the U.S. alongside Bleiler and whoever else makes the cut. Hight ” who was still entering tiny local contests when the last Olympics took place ” was the top qualifier for both finals competitions.

“It’s in the back of my mind,” Hight said of the Winter Games. “It’d be a great accomplishment to go.”

Byrnes placed third after she finished fifth on Wednesday, but the biggest story was Hannah Teter, who stumbled during both of her runs and took fifth. Teter won Wednesday’s event ” her third win in the last four Breck Grand Prix events ” but unknown Polish rider Paulina Ligocka edged her for fourth on Saturday.

“I’m pretty bummed,” Teter said quietly after the contest. “I just wanted to stomp a run today. … Minor things make the biggest difference. Whatever it was, it was pretty small.”

Switzerland’s Andrea Schuler finished sixth, followed by Molly Aguirre of Minnesota.

Copper Mountain rider and U.S. Snowboard Team member Clair Bidez again failed to land an impressive run. She settled for 10th, the same place she finished on Wednesday.

Devon O’Neil’s e-mail is doneil@summitdaily.com.