Out There: The upsides and downsides of being Gretchen Bleiler
November 29, 2007
ASPEN There are world-class snowboarders who to do little more than earn paychecks from their respective sponsors and ride until their hearts are content. Sometimes Gretchen Bleiler wishes she was one of them.This is especially true after a few weeks like Bleiler just had, ping-ponging between Seattle, New York, Southern California, Germany, Austria, Atlanta, New York again and then back to Seattle before finally making it home to Aspen.The hectic schedule underlines this fact: Bleiler is no longer just an otherworldly halfpipe specialist, she’s her own cottage industry.She consults and models for her own signature line of Oakley clothing, eyewear and accessories, and helps design and test her own K2 snowboard. There are also deals with Nike, Napster, Level Gloves, Giro Helmets and Dunkin’ Donuts.Bleiler was in Seattle for product development on the newest K2 Mix board, in Germany and Austria for an Oakley-sponsored all-female snowboard camp, in New York for two different black tie dinners and in Atlanta for a K2 appearance and signing at a huge sports outlet. If the business side of her life isn’t busy enough, Bleiler is also a spokeswoman for the fight against global warming and equality in women’s sports. She appears in the Aspen Skiing Co.’s “Save Snow” print ads and is also actively involved with stopglobalwarming.org. This summer she appeared in Nike TV ads with other prominent female athletes – Picabo Street, Diana Taurasi and Gabrielle Reece among them – yelling into a 15-foot-long megaphone that “the halfpipe doesn’t care that I’m a girl.”Somewhere amidst all that, Bleiler still finds time to try push the limits of the sport that made her famous and earned her a silver medal at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. She was at Oregon’s Mount Hood in July for Burton’s Abominable Snow Jam – which she won – and spent the first two weeks of September riding in New Zealand. Bleiler says that she always envisioned herself doing more than just riding her snowboard, although there are times where she wonders whether a life without so many commitments wouldn’t be more fulfilling.
“It definitely can wear you down,” she says. “When you start doing things and you’re successful, more and more people ask things of you. You just have to kind of feel it out and make sure you’re going down the path you want to go.”Last season, Bleiler realized that wasn’t the case. Years of following the same competitive circuit of halfpipe events – World Cups, Grand Prix, the Winter X Games and the U.S. Open – suddenly wasn’t as gratifying. She still shined, taking second in front of her hometown fans in Aspen and adding a silver at the U.S. Open.Deep down, however, Bleiler realized that she was ready to take her career in a new direction. It was time to stop talking about pursuing other opportunities on her snowboard, like magazine photo shoots and filming in the backcountry, and finally do it. “Last season was a little tougher for me, mentally, competition-wise,” she says. “It wasn’t as satisfying for me as it was seeing a photo that I had worked all day to get. Just to see that instant gratification that night, like, ‘Oh that photo turned out insane’ and know that it’s going to go out in a publication, that was really satisfying last year. So, that’s what my focus is going to be this coming season. I’ve already planned it out in order to make it happen. If I don’t schedule things and commit to things beforehand, I’ll just probably go with the flow and end up competing.”Don’t worry. Bleiler says she’ll still compete in her favorite events, with the Winter X Games at Buttermilk at the top of that list. She also says she’ll never fully lose the appetite to win. In spite of all the things she fills her life with, her long-term goal is to return to the Olympics in 2010 and win the gold medal she failed to pick up two winters ago.The Aspen Times recently caught up with Bleiler on the phone and spoke to her about her long-term goals, her progression as a snowboarder, how she overcomes fear and the causes that are closest to her heart.The Aspen Times: With your hectic travel schedule, how much time on the board have you had this offseason?
Gretchen Bleiler: A lot. I went to Mount Hood in July for the Abominable Snow Jam, which was really fun. Then I went to New Zealand for the very first two weeks of September and then Germany was the last time I went snowboarding. It feels like all of these things were just yesterday. I feel like I’ve been snowboarding a lot, but I’ve also just had this just crazy, hectic travel schedule, being everywhere at once for everyone doing all these different things. But I’m really excited to be done with all that and actually get back out on the snowboard because it’s going to feel really good just to focus in on that again.AT: How do you feel heading into the season? Where’s your riding at?GB: I feel really good. I actually spent this past spring and summer focusing on just sort of changing my whole perspective and way of looking at riding the halfpipe, which I think was a long time coming after I’ve been working on certain things for so long. It’s bound to happen, so you need to take a look at things and re-evaluate. I just started working on a lot more basic tricks that I never really took the time to do or to do well because I felt like I needed to move on to the next big technical trick. It’s really changed my perspective and changed my riding style in the halfpipe. It’s really refreshing, and I think it’s going to change my whole direction this season. I’m excited. I’m really, really excited going into this season. It’s going to be a really different year than I’ve had before.AT: What’s an example of the tricks you’re going back and relearning?GB: Just alley-oops. A backside alley-oop in the halfpipe is the first trick I ever learned. I think it looks so great if it’s done with a ton of amplitude and style. It’s like one of the coolest tricks to watch. I started doing those frontside and backside. Also air to fakey and I really started working more on my switch riding and my switch spins. It’s a totally different type of riding than what I’m used to mentally, which is 900s, cripplers, working on the Michalchuck. Just things that are really, really pushing the envelope. These types of tricks are a lot more basic, but just challenge me in a different type of way. It’s more about going at it with speed and amplitude and confidence and style than just getting it around.
AT: Your big technical tricks will still be part of your run, though, right?GB: Of course. It’s just adding to the bag of tricks that I do have. Doing these more basic tricks are going to be great for my run, because I’ll have all these different options and I won’t need to just drop in and throw the same run with different combinations.AT: How do you deal with fear?GB: I think the way I approach it is just different, because it’s something that I deal with almost every single day that I’m up there on the hill. It’s my job to push myself out of my comfort zone in order to be up there with the best girls in the world. So, I think it’s just something that I have to expect, and when I’m up there and it’s time to go for it, it’s just saying, ‘OK, I am afraid, but I’m confident in myself.’ It’s all about committing 100 percent. No matter how scared you may be. The second that you back off or have any sort of doubt, you’re in trouble. It’s all about commitment, and realizing that you are afraid and just moving through it. AT: You’re an inspiration to so many young girls. Who do you admire?GB: People always ask me that. I never am able to say just one specific person. Really, it’s looking within my sport and looking at the top girls who are pushing it in a different way, and just taking inspiration from all of their strengths.
AT: Snowboarding was something you got into because it was so fun to do. With how involved you are in the business of snowboarding, is that still true? Does snowboarding as a job ever wear you down?GB: Yeah, there are snowboarders who have chosen to just stay snowboarders and remain in the industry. I’ve always kind of pushed myself to go for more than just that and do everything that I can do. Just make the most of this career. It definitely can wear you down, though. … It’s about going at your own pace. For me, I just know when I can do it and when I just have to say no. If I’m getting worn too thin, that’s when I just have to say no.AT: Of all the trips you took this offseason, were any of those vacations?GB: No. Actually, that’s not true. I went to Costa Rica for two weeks at the beginning of June. That’s kind of how it is now. I only have that time off when I go somewhere and make it a vacation. If I’m in Aspen or California, I don’t necessarily have a photo shoot to do, but I have like 800 e-mails to respond to or product reviews or the next snowboard that I’m going to design. I’m always thinking about the next thing and always catching up. It’s pretty exhausting because there are so many parts to what I do now. … There are just so many different places it takes you, but, for me, this is what I’ve always wanted. I am super busy, and sometimes I just want to stop and be a snowboarder, but, then again, I wouldn’t be happy with just doing that. AT: What’s the ultimate goal?
GB: I know what some of my long-term goals are. I would love to go to Vancouver for the next Olympics. I know what I want to do within snowboarding. All of the other things I’m doing outside of that with designing, those kinds of things, I sort of have an idea. I think for me, I think it’s just about going with it and going where it takes you. There are so many things that just pop up and you can’t predict. It’s better to just work your ass off and try to take advantage of all the opportunities while at the same time being true to who I am, and who I want to be portrayed as.AT: What are your goals for this season?GB: This season, like I said before, is going to be different than any season I’ve ever done before. I’ve said that before because I sort of wanted that, but I never really made that happen because I was still happy competing. I was still doing really well in halfpipe contests. After last season, I feel like I need it more than ever to go out and spend the season filming and shooting photos. … I’ve already planned it out in order to make it happen. If I don’t schedule things and commit to things beforehand, I’ll just probably go with the flow and end up competing. … I’m really excited, because it’s going to happen. I’m going to force myself to make it happen. It’s a little scary, too, because this is a different side of snowboarding, and I feel like it’s going to be a little like starting over. I’m going to be riding in different circumstances, doing more heli trips, more in the backcountry hitting jumps into powder. These things are totally different than riding the halfpipe. I’ve done my fair share of all those things here and there, but I’ve never just honed in on it.AT: You’re in these new Nike ads sticking up for women’s sports and equal opportunities. There are some snowboard contests where men get paid more than women. Do you think that’s fair?GB: I think it’s important with the success that I’ve had to get behind certain issues that I think are important. One is the environment. That’s something that I’ve been talking about, doing interviews about, just to get the awareness out about it. Trying to get people to go online to stopglobalwarming.com and become a virtual marcher and just learn about it. Another thing is the women and sports, because, for me, I think one of the main reasons I am who I am today and why I have been successful and have confidence and am able to get out there and do whatever I want to do is because of sports. I have been kind of getting involved with the Women’s Sports Foundation and getting behind ad campaigns like the Nike ad campaign and just getting it out there that it is important that there should be an equal playing field and that, like the Nike campaign was hinting at, we should be judged solely as athletes and not by the color of our hair, or our gender or how much we weigh or how tall we are. Rather, that we are athletes and we’re pushing ourselves just as much as anyone. It’s nice to get behind things that you believe in.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com