Off axis, on a mission
When the hype gets to be too much, Gretchen Bleiler goes to the gym.It’s the one place she is able to block out all the distractions, she says. The media outlets needling for interviews. The mandated photo shoots and public appearances for sponsors. The phone calls from her agent. Bleiler says they all fade out when she’s sweating by herself – her mind locked in on a lifelong goal.”It’s so easy to get caught up in all the hype and pressure,” says the Aspen local, who is the odds-on favorite to win gold in the halfpipe in Bardonecchia, Italy, in February at the Winter Olympics. “It’s been good for me to just be in the gym making sure I’m as strong as possible so that I’m as confident as I can be going into it. I kind of get nervous talking about it, but then I get in the gym and just get focused.”Freeriding is also an escape. Bleiler was at Mammoth Mountain in California two weeks ago for early season training, but sparse snow prompted her to jump in her car and drive back to Colorado.Last week she was at Copper Mountain riding with her friend Tricia Byrnes, another U.S. medal hopeful in women’s halfpipe. The duo was content to do laps on the runs that were open and forget about halfpipe training. Last Tuesday, Bleiler says, she and Byrnes volunteered on a whim to be forerunners for the finals of the Winter Olympics qualifier in women’s parallel slalom.”It was hilarious,” Bleiler says, laughing. To clarify, Bleiler has no intentions of ever trading in her K2 twin-tip for an alpine board. Slopestyle competitions are also out for the near future.After being edged out for a halfpipe spot on the U.S. team that competed in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, then losing the 2003-04 season to a knee injury she suffered in slopestyle training, Bleiler isn’t taking any risks as she prepares for her shot at Olympic glory.
To get to Bardonecchia, she has five chances to earn one of three guaranteed spots on the U.S. team for women’s halfpipe. U.S. Snowboarding officials will select the three riders with the best combined results out of the five qualifiers. A rider’s result is based on her highest two scores. There are two discretionary spots U.S. officials will use when it comes to a close call, but Bleiler doesn’t want to leave anything up to chance.”It’s all about the qualifiers,” she says. “I had a great season last year. I won the [Winter] X Games, the Gravity Games and the U.S. Open and the World Cup [in Bardonecchia], so I feel pretty confident going into this year.” The first shot to secure a team spot comes Dec. 13-14 at the first U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix in Breckenridge. There is another halfpipe qualifier at a Grand Prix at Mount Bachelor, Ore., Jan. 5, followed by the final two qualifiers in Mountain Creek, N.J., Jan. 20-21.In 2002, the final halfpipe spot on the U.S. team came down to a triple tiebreaker between Bleiler and Byrnes. Byrnes earned the spot and finished sixth in Park City, Utah. Bleiler used the disappointment of not making the team as fuel to become the most dominant women’s pipe rider in the world the following season.She owned every big-name halfpipe contest, including the superpipe final at the Winter X Games. She strung together eight consecutive halfpipe victories – an unheard-of accomplishment in a sport averse to consistency.Then, in Dec. 2003, it all came to a halt. During a slopestyle training run at Breckenridge, she overshot a landing on a kicker and slammed down hard on her right knee. After surgery on a partially torn ACL, Bleiler spent five hours a day doing rehab for five months straight. Bleiler’s triumphant return came 13 months after her injury, when she regained her Winter X Games crown with an untouchable run in the superpipe final.The win erased all the self-doubt Bleiler says she was having after the injury.
She hopes this year’s Winter X Games will just be as memorable. She wants to take momentum from Buttermilk with her to Italy, just as she did last season. “I think that having the X Games in Aspen is huge for me,” she says. “I know that personally, I put more pressure on myself. In the last few years I’ve been able to take the community support and use that to my advantage. Just listen to the crowd and just get excited. I feel like it’s really going to be a good practice contest before the Olympics. It’s the biggest you can come to the Olympics as far as media and hype and pressure.”Hard to missBleiler isn’t one of the most sought-after Olympic hopefuls this year solely because she has a good shot of bringing home Olympic gold.There’s no getting around the fact that Bleiler – a striking blonde with the body of a swimsuit model – looks great on the cover of a magazine, regardless of how good she is on a snowboard. Think Michael Phelps. Think Katarina Witt.In 2003, when she was sidelined by her injury, Bleiler posed for a cover of FHM magazine in nothing but body paint. Recently, at a media summit at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, she posed for Men’s Journal in a bikini top.When asked about using her sex appeal to market herself, Bleiler is modest, but at the same time up-front with her response.”Basically, whenever I do photo shoots, they want to utilize everything,” she says, snickering a little when the ‘everything’ comes out of her mouth. “It’s just all part of the game. It’s cool for me, because some photo shoots are just action stuff, which is great. Others are more lifestyle, which is they want to get to know the personality of the person, which is awesome too.”The media opportunity Bleiler is most excited about is the short trailer she shot for NBC that will screen in movie theaters around the country this winter.
While she admits that the media swarm can be overwhelming at times, she also understands that the Winter Olympics only come around once every four years and that she is getting attention because she represents the collective hopes of her home country.Bleiler admits it is the kind of scrutiny she has envisioned for herself for nearly her entire life.When she was a little girl in Ohio, before her family moved to Snowmass Village, Bleiler says she dreamed of winning an Olympic medal in swimming. Those hopes morphed into thoughts of winning a gold in ice hockey when she was playing on youth teams in Aspen.Snowboarding ended up being the best option.”I’ve always dreamed of being an Olympian,” says Bleiler, who credits her older brothers for giving her a competitive streak. “I’ve always been super-athletic.”Off axis and untouchableBleiler has also always been comfortable being upside down in the air – her greatest advantage in the halfpipe, she says. Her signature trick, the crippler 540 (an inverted 540 spin) has repeatedly helped her separate herself from the other top female halfpipe riders in the world.
Bleiler, who is also one of the few women in the world capable of a 900, plans on one-upping herself this season by adding a Michalchuk to her repertoire. The move, patented by Canadian pro Mike Michalchuk, is an off-axis backflip off the backside wall of the halfpipe. Bleiler says she got the trick down this fall while training in New Zealand with her coach, Ricky Bower – and Michalchuk himself.If she is to land the maneuver in a competition this season, she will be the first woman to do so.”Obviously, the best thing to do in any sport is focus on your strengths,” she says. “For me, my strength is sort of back-flip inverts. Not too many girls are doing inverts. That was something that I looked at. I said, ‘No other girl has done this. That would be cool to be the first girl to do it.'””My coach, Ricky Bower, is one of the best guys out there who does it out there,” she adds. “I had the creator, then I had my coach Ricky, who’s almost better than Michalchuk at them, teaching me how to do this trick. So, I felt like if I didn’t learn this trick then and there [in New Zealand], then I probably never would have because I had the best two teachers.”Bleiler wouldn’t be the first American to win gold in halfpipe, just the latest. Kelly Clark won gold in Park City in 2002 – the first gold medal for the Americans in those games. Having already won a World Cup gold in the Olympic halfpipe last year, Bleiler says when she thinks of Turin and Bardonecchia, she can think of nothing else other than success. “I’ve gotten to go to the town and see it and hang out without all the crazy pressure and I’ve gotten to ride the halfpipe,” she says. “I love the halfpipe. I thought it was one of the best of the year. I’ve been there and experienced it and done well, so whenever I think of it, I have good feelings about it. “But,” she adds, “it’s all about the qualifiers.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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