Homecoming better for Bleiler this time
Record-setting superpipe success different feeling from 2006.
For Gretchen Bleiler, Aspen’s golden girl of snowboarding, Winter X Games 14 are all about alchemy.
It was here at Buttermilk Mountain, the place where Bleiler first rode a snowboard at age 11, that the hometown halfpipe hero first made her mark on the sport that has grown up around her. And with a record fourth win in women’s superpipe Saturday night, it’s the place where she leaves her indelible mark.
“Tonight it all came together, finally, just everything,” Bleiler said. “I didn’t doubt myself. I just went for it. Everything went right.”
Victory at Buttermilk could not have come at a more opportune time for Bleiler, who entered Winter X 14 after earning an invitation to her second Winter Olympic Games, next month in Vancouver.
There, she hopes to ride her X Games momentum to turn silver into gold.
“Every contest is different, every halfpipe is different,” Bleiler said of her return to Olympic competition. “My goal is to figure out my perfect run for that day, that pipe, those conditions, and then land it. But it’s also to enjoy all of this.”
Bleiler clearly revels in her unrivaled success at what she calls “the most amazing event in snowboarding.” But it was also here at Winter X, four years ago, where Bleiler encountered a wrinkle in her original Olympic dream.
As the top American qualifier heading into Turin 2006, Bleiler was widely considered the favorite to win Olympic gold. Claiming she “wanted to be 100 percent going into Torino” two weeks later, she pulled out of the contest that launched her career into superstar status only a few minutes before the opportunity to defend her 2005 X Games gold medal.
“I showed up here, and I just wasn’t riding the way I ride,” said Bleiler, 28. “My body was giving me all these signs to not do it, to stop. I was tired, exhausted. So I listened. And it was a really hard decision.”
The decision not to compete in front of the hometown fans in 2006 proved to be equally draining on a mental and emotional level. Whether the ensuing scrutiny had any bearing on her losing the Olympic gold medal to American teammate Hannah Teter will never be definitively determined.
The only certainty is that things are different for the runner-up this time.
“This time around I feel good. I feel confident. So it wasn’t as mentally stressful,” Bleiler said. “Absolutely, I’m going (to Vancouver) to win the gold. But I don’t like to think about that. I can’t focus on the end result. Because then that brings in extra pressure, extra hype. I know if I land my perfect run, that run that I’m thinking about, the results will come.”
Bleiler’s career can in some ways be seen as a reflection of her preference for the superpipe. Like every run through the pipe, her career has had its shares of ups and downs, occasional stumbles, flips and twists. Yet, in the end, she manages to overcome the perils brilliantly.
After missing out on the 2002 Olympic team in a triple tiebreaker that went to her friend Tricia Byrnes, Bleiler re-focused her efforts in 2003. She won eight of the sport’s biggest contests in a row that season, including her first gold medal at the Winter X Games.
She promptly injured her right anterior cruciate ligament at the beginning of 2004, taking a season to recover before vaulting back to the top of her game with a second Winter X gold in 2005. She won the title again in 2008 before taking a hard crash that led to a concussion and sixth-place finish last winter.
She bounced back Saturday to set the second-highest women’s superpipe score in X Games history with the most difficult run she’s ever done, including the addition of 900-degree spin off the 22-foot superpipe wall.
“It happens,” Bleiler said of last winter’s fall. “And then you have to move on and think about what you want to accomplish.”
The fiercely competitive snowboarder acknowledges that no one really dreams about winning silver medals.
“I definitely feel like there’s more to accomplish at the Olympics,” she said.
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