Bleiler reigns supreme
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Her Xcellency. That sums it up.
Snowmass Village’s Gretchen Bleiler won Winter X Games gold in the halfpipe Friday, the local high point of the ESPN event that saw record crowds and virtually nonstop action Thursday through Sunday at Buttermilk.
Motorcyclists pulling back flips off snow jumps were juxtaposed with anti-war protesters in “make turns, not war” race bibs, so it was no surprise the event also caused truancy en masse from the Aspen public schools,
Bleiler, 21, a 1999 Aspen High graduate, shrugged off a shoulder injury sustained in practice the day before and laid out an unbeatable bag of tricks with fluid, high-flying grace in the sun-soaked finals on Friday.
And in the same fashion as the men’s halfpipe competitors bowed to Shaun White, who won the men’s contest earlier on Friday (and then won Sunday’s snowboarding slopestyle event), the women riders, the fans and judges, agreed unanimously that Bleiler was the best.
“I’ve been waiting for her to land her run like that for a year now,” said Vermont’s Kelly Clark. Clark won gold in the 2002 X Games and Olympics in the halfpipe, and was Friday’s runner-up behind Bleiler, her teammate on the U.S. snowboard squad.
“Now, it’s her time. It’s so good to see her do well.”
Bleiler qualified for the 10-woman finals in first place – meaning she was the last rider to start in the best-of-two format. After the other finalists made their first runs, Bleiler opened with her signature move, a towering Crippler 540 (a flip with one-and-a-half sideways rotations) and landed it solidly high on the wall.
Equally stunned and ecstatic, Bleiler pumped her arms once in celebration before fixing her sights on the opposite wall and the next trick. Meanwhile, thousands of fans in the bleachers at the foot of the pipe, and hundreds more lining the decks on each side, thunderously roared their approval and asked for more.
Bleiler responded with a back-side air, then a front-side air before finishing with lofty back-to-back 540s, amid even greater applause.
Her score of 95.33 topped Clark’s 94, marks that stood up through the second run.
“Finally,” Bleiler sighed. “It’s a run that I’ve been working on for a while, I was working on it last year, too, and I finally got it down this year. I can’t believe it.
“My mom had the whole crew going here, everyone was cheering, it was amazing. It helped so much to have my friends and family here.”
Hannah Teter, 15, of Belmont, Vt., one of two girls to land a 900, was third with a score of 91.67. The other girl to land a 900, a new trick to the women’s circuit this year, was Lindsey Jacobellis of Stratton, Vt., who finished fourth with a score of 90.33.
“The level is huge now,” Bleiler said. “It’s all inverts, amp and spins now. I’m working on nailing that Crippler 7 and a 900 next time around.”
It was the biggest win of Bleiler’s career and also her greatest vindication. Last winter, Bleiler missed the Olympics by the narrowest of margins, losing out to fellow U.S. national team rider Tricia Byrnes based on three tiers of tie-breaking criteria.
“Ahhh, yes, it sure is vindication,” Bleiler said. “I’ve been working really hard this year, really everything – amplitude, style, tricks – and it’s definitely helping.”
Clark, for one, noticed.
“We were all very disappointed last year when Gretchen couldn’t come with us [to the Olympics]. It didn’t seem fair because she worked just as hard as us to get there, but she didn’t get to go. So I’m not disappointed now, especially since it’s Gretchen at the top,” she said.
“To see everybody throw down in a contest like this makes you want to ride better,” Clark continued. “There’s only so many flat spins you can do. It’s getting to the level now with women’s snowboarding that in order to podium, you have to do a flip, like Gretchen, or a 900, like Hannah or Lindsey.”
In the men’s event, White, 16, of Carlsbad, Calif., owned the pipe. And, as it turned out, the park, too.
White, the silver medalist in snowboard halfpipe and slopestyle last year at the X Games, traded up to gold in both events this time around.
Owing to a halfpipe run with two inverted maneuvers and great big air throughout, White qualified for the 10-man halfpipe finals in first place. Then, after all of the other finalists made their first run, White took the opportunity to lay down “one of the sickest halfpipe runs I’ve ever seen,” said Aspen’s Travis McLain, the PA announcer at the event.
White earned a score of 97.67, out of a possible 100, meaning the other finalists had to lay it on the line in the second run to contend. They all did, but no one managed to top White.
Danny Kass of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., the silver medalist at the 2002 Olympics, finished second (96.67), followed by Finland’s Markku Koski in third (96.33) and Vermont’s Ross Powers, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist, in fourth (95.67).
Wearing a “Craig Kelly is my copilot” sticker on his bib, a tribute to the snowboarding icon who was killed in the Jan. 20 avalanche near Revelstoke, British Columbia, White, nicknamed “Future Boy,” came of age.
“Shaun definitely deserved to win today,” Powers said. “He had all the different tricks, all the combinations on both walls and good height.”
[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is email@example.com]
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