Hydropower: From water to ice to snow, snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler has finally found her elementWhen Gretchen Bleiler was 7 and living in Ohio, she dreamed about going to the Olympics as a swimmer and a diver. Then she moved to Aspen, Colo., when she was 10 and her dreams changed from water to ice: hockey would be her ticket to the Games. By the time she reached high school, she had found the perfect compromise in snowboarding, a sport that combined all the fun elements of diving — flips, twists and air awareness — with those of ice skating: edge control, balance and pure aggression.
In just six short years since her first snowboard competition, Bleiler has become one of the top female halfpipe competitors in the world. Last season, she won the Vans Triple Crown of Snowboarding overall title as well as the U.S National Halfpipe title. While she was earning these national and international titles, she came within inches of realizing her long-running childhood fantasy and making the 2002 U.S. Olympic Team.
Bleiler joined the U.S. Snowboard Team straight out of high school in 1999, and her competitive career seemed to gain momentum exponentially year by year. In only her second season on the team, she placed second in a Grand Prix, won a FIS World Cup in Japan and then wrapped it up with a third at the prestigious U.S. Open at Stratton, a finish which carried a lot of weight as the Open has long been considered a proving ground for the world's best.
Like a perfectly seasoned athlete, Bleiler came into the 2002 season on a roll. She made it to the podium in three of the five Olympic qualifiers, earning two seconds and a third, only to find herself in a dead heat with close friend and teammate Tricia Byrnes for the third and final spot on the team. Shannon Dunn and Kelly Clark had already clinched their positions and only one spot remained. "It was as close as it possibly could have been," says Bleiler. So close, in fact, they finally had to resort to international rankings, both FIS and ISF, to determine who would go. In the end, it was Byrnes who went.
So Bleiler had to put her Olympic dreams on hold for a while. And she seems genuinely OK with that. "It was tough, but if I was meant to go then I would have gone," she says. "I'm bummed about it, but next time around I'll definitely be ready."
At 21, Bleiler has plenty of time to perfect her halfpipe run before the Turin 2006 Games. She also has plenty of other things to keep her busy. For many of the freestyle set, the lure of filming and photo shoots and the pressure of industry sponsors to keep a high profile are just as powerful as that of the Olympic podium. In a sport where image is everything, maintaining "marketability" means not appearing to be too committed to just one aspect of snowboarding. "I just want to be an all-around rider and get known in the mags and films," says Bleiler. "I don't feel pressured by my sponsors to do this so much as I pressure myself. It's what I want to do."
Tricia Byrnes has full confidence in Bleiler's abilities to go beyond the walls of the halfpipe. "Gretchen is a really versatile rider," she says. "She works as hard on jumps and rails as she does in the pipe. She will definitely get credit this year for being an all-around rider and not just a pipe jockey."
According to her former coach, Pete DelGuidice, Bleiler's got all the necessary tools to be whatever kind of rider she puts her mind to. "Gretchen is one of the few women freestylers that angulates real well," he says. "She can flip, get good air and throw good spins and she does it all with style."
Along with her obvious technical skills, Bleiler also demonstrates an extraordinary level of determination. Says DelGuidice, "Gretchen is pretty gutsy. We have to work to keep her in one piece because she just wants to excel so much and chasing her desire to be the best can lead to bumps and bruises."
Case in point: Bleiler gave herself a black eye while trying to perfect her Crippler, an inverted spinning trick, in an icy pipe before the final Olympic qualifier last year. It's hard not to wince when she describes the scenario. "I was throwing myself into the flat bottom. This hurt an awful lot, but it was so important for me to do this trick, it literally meant the Olympics, so I kept doing it," she says. Bleiler eventually landed with her face smashing into the wall of the pipe, resulting in a hefty shiner.
If you ask her to explain her success in sports — since the age of 4 she has excelled at swimming, soccer and ice hockey — she doesn't need to think about it for too long. "I'm really focused and determined to do the best that I can," she says. "I'm never satisfied unless I am going at something 100 percent."
And if Bleiler has her wish, the credit for being an all-around rider will be granted in front of friends and family at this season's ESPN Winter X Games, held in her hometown of Aspen. Though she has been invited to this exclusive event three times already, an accomplishment in itself, she has, as of yet, failed to shine. "Last year it was just too close to the Olympic qualifiers, I was too burned out, but this yearâ€¦ it would be awesome to podium at the X Games in front of the hometown fans," she says.
Bleiler has been spending a lot of time in the park at Mammoth this fall in hopes of expanding her opportunities. She's already qualified for the X Games superpipe and, if she does well in the Vans Triple Crown slopestyle events, she will qualify for slopestyle as well. With a solid quiver of tricks, including backside and frontside 540s, 720s and that tricky Crippler, along with a renewed confidence in the park, landing on that X Games podium should be just a smooth railslide away.