Gretchen Bleiler featured in The New York Times
Riders Are Alone at Buttermilk Halfpipe, Together
ASPEN, Colo. — Great painters never see a blank canvas, only the possibilities.
That same principle holds for athletes. And for a snowboarder, there is no stage more suited for pushing the realms of possibility than the 500-foot-long superpipe at Buttermilk Mountain outside Aspen.
It is snowboarding’s Mecca, given the crowds it attracts each year for the Winter X Games and the reverence with which some of the world’s best halfpipe riders view it.
Which is why, less than a year from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, U.S. Snowboarding officials worked out a deal with the Aspen Skiing Company to hold an exclusive two-week camp for top riders last month after the lifts had stopped running for the season.
There were no TV cameras, crowds or bright lights, only a blank canvas for experimentation. The early feedback was promising.
Gretchen Bleiler, a silver medalist in the halfpipe at the 2006 Olympics, worked tirelessly one day on a combination that had never been done before in women’s halfpipe competition. The series of tricks, an inverted 720-degree spin known as a 720 crippler followed by a cab 720 off the opposite wall of the pipe, is the realization of years of progression.
To Bleiler, the process of getting the combination down felt like one long headache.
“With any new trick, I’m always frustrated because it takes a lot more energy to do it than an easier, simpler trick,” she said. “It’s frustrating in a good way, though, because I am pushing myself.”
She added, “This is when you kind of just need to keep going, keep plugging away, keep pushing past your boundaries and then all of the sudden it’s just natural.”
That line of thinking is prevalent among snowboarders during the spring. Once the competitive season winds down and the temperature begins to rise, the race heats up among the sport’s elite athletes to come up with the next wave of tricks.
To facilitate that process, Mike Jankowski, U.S. Snowboarding’s halfpipe coach, said the team camp was the obvious next step.
At Buttermilk, the riders not only had the huge pipe to themselves, but also the services of two snowmobile drivers to ferry them up the mountain. There were also staff members on site to salt the snow when it got too soft or to add blue dye when the lighting was flat, as well as to recut the walls of the halfpipe each night.
Although the setting was ideal, Jankowski said advances in the sport were fostered not by the pipe but by the riders. Already motivated individually, they also pushed each other to do more.
Riders got as many as 25 runs a day during the camp.
Among those filtering in and out of the daily sessions included Steve Fisher, a two-time Winter X Games champion, and Kevin Pearce. Both have beaten the sport’s star, Shaun White, in competition.
And to keep up with White, both were hard at work on tricks that were once seemingly pipe dreams before edifices like the one at Buttermilk came into being. One trick Jankowski said to watch for next winter was a double-corked 1260, a spin cycle of three and a half rotations and two off-axis flips.
The last two Olympic champions in women’s halfpipe, Hannah Teter and Kelly Clark, were also training in Aspen, leaving White as the only noticeable absentee, despite invitations from the United States team.
He certainly had a good excuse. While his competition was trying to keep in step, White was reportedly taking a break after his camp at perhaps the only pipe in the world that could rival Buttermilk’s: a private halfpipe built on the backside of remote Silverton Mountain in Colorado. Red Bull reportedly contributed $500,000 to the halfpipe’s construction.
Among other things, the pipe was reportedly accessible only via helicopter or snowmobile and featured a foam pit at the base of one end to allow White to try whatever new tricks he could dream up.
Jankowski did not want to speculate about what those were, but he did say tricks like the double-corked 1260 would probably be much more prevalent during next winter’s Olympic qualifying Grand Prix, much the way back-to-back 1080s were the must-have combination before the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Although the addition of another revolution showcases evolution, Jankowski said the real progress was in the subtle way tricks were refined to look natural. It is not about the spinning so much as how it looks. And to get it down perfect, it takes a lot of practice and snowmobile trips back up the mountain.
“There’s the obvious progression from a 10 to a 12 or from a 12 to a 14, but one of the key things our guys and girls have done is make sure that we’re not upping the ante and we’re not upping the rotation level unless we’re grabbing and it’s smooth and it looks good,” Jankowski said.
Jankowski said he hoped the effort would pay off. The United States took four of the six medals in halfpipe at the last Olympics in Turin, Italy, but Jankowski said he expected stiffer competition next winter in Vancouver.
“We don’t take anybody lightly, but we definitely want to maintain our position as the ones to beat, as the ones who set the bar,” he said. “We don’t want to be playing catch-up.”
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