Eye injury? What eye injury? Bleiler wants to get back at it
Despite traumatic accident, snowboard star won’t give up on her sport
If Gretchen Bleiler wasn’t fighting back from the eye injury she suffered during the summer, it would be uncharacteristic for the pro snowboarder who has made her mark on the industry by breaking the rules.
She chose not to believe her surgeon, who told her she’d never fully regain her vision.
Limitations? What limitations? The woman likes to fly, so let her go.
And now, the same woman who said that snowboarding wasn’t worth the pain of a fractured eye socket that left her eye drooping into her skull is now yearning to get back into the halfpipe.
Bleiler ranks the injury as the worst in the spectrum of injuries she’s experienced. A busted knee left her out of the game for awhile, but the recovery from such a tried-and-true surgery wasn’t nearly as frightening as having a reconstructed eye socket followed by double vision — and the question of whether that would be the card dealt to her for life.
True to Bleiler’s nature, though, she fought back.
“It was so serious, I had to do everything and listen to my body. To this day, I have my eye exercise papers around. It’s a part of my life every day now. It has to be, because this is my life for the rest of my life. This is the vision I’ll be dealt with,” said Bleiler, who spent the majority of the early season in Frisco, where she’s had ready access to pipes at both Copper Mountain and Breckenridge Ski Resort — places she calls the two best Northern Hemisphere early season training grounds.
Bleiler, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist, had been practicing a double backflip in June at the Center of Excellence in Utah when she over-rotated, bouncing wrong and connecting her knee with her face. It shattered her right eye socket, broke her nose, split open her eyebrow and gave her a serious concussion.
The Center of Excellence is in Park City, which is also where the snowboard world has suffered its share of tragic accidents — Sarah Burke died there while training in the halfpipe a few years after Kevin Pearce incurred a traumatic brain injury in the same location.
“Park City has had a rough go. … It’s tough. We need to get a big piece of sage and clean that place out, clean out the energy,” Bleiler said, adding that it’s also not surprising that a place where the most elite athletes in the United States come to train and learn new tricks would see such horrible accidents. Bleiler boycotted the Park City halfpipe following the Sarah Burke incident, but should she return to competition at the end of January at the X Games, as planned, she’ll also be heading to the site of the accident to compete at the next U.S. Grand Prix stop.
“You have to just let it go. It’s not the place — Park City is a beautiful town and an awesome place to ride,” she said.
‘Wild style’ eye recovery
Which is what she’s trying to do with the psychological part of her own injury — and the confusing bout with double vision.
After taking on a “wild style” of physical therapy — there’s not really a method to the madness of bringing vision back — Bleiler says she no longer has double vision in the halfpipe. Now, it only happens when she looks straight up or straight down without moving her head. So, she just adjusts to make it go away.
“What was going on in my eye is similar to any surgery” she said. “The first year after a surgery is really important to get that moving all the time and range of motion. If you don’t, the scar tissue from the surgery and injury can hold it in place and it’s unable to move in the way it should be able to move.”
After two months, the “progress was unreal,” Bleiler said. She came to Copper Mountain to test her abilities after being frightened in New Zealand, and “was blown away with the difference.”
Still, there’s remnants of fear for the 31-year-old.
“This was so different from any injury I’ve ever had. Any surgery is scary because surgery is scary. This was something on a whole other level. When your vision is compromised, it changes everything. It’s scary and on that level of possibly changing your life. A knee, you can have surgery and do enough therapy where you’re back to normal. This was totally different,” she said.
One thing helping Bleiler is her training in meditation, which she gleaned from a summer stop at the Chopra Center, where she found balance, clarity and meaning in everyday life — and the ability to hit the reset button. She’s working toward getting her certificate in meditation teaching.
“I want to never be happy with where I am. I want to continue to grow and change and learn,” she said.
She would be lying if she said she didn’t think of her snowboarding colleagues when she considers her accident — even though she’s been relatively lucky in her career. And though many wonder if the model-snowboarder-aspiring meditation instructor will retire soon, Bleiler says she hopes not.
“I want to come back because there’s still more I want to do and more I can do,” she said. “It’s so inspiring. I get a lot of fan mail my mom helps me with. That stuff, it makes this whole world that I live in feel really good. It shows me it’s not just about me going out there … It’s about inspiring others to do the same.”
Can’t say I will, can’t say I won’t
Bleiler had the Grand Prix stop at Copper on her radar for a possible return to the competition field, but skipped it, citing not being quite ready. She’s now eyeing the Winter X Games in Aspen at the end of January, which takes place in her hometown. But Bleiler says she’s taking it one day at a time, even amidst her own pressure to get back and the outside pressure to get back on track for the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
“I can’t say I’m going to compete, I can’t say I’m not going to compete. For me, the most important thing is to just get my confidence back and get my riding back,” she said. “It’s been a little harder than I thought it would be. Especially at the beginning of December, I hopped back into the pipe and was so excited to get back. I was riding at such a high level last year and I wanted to get back to that.”
But, she added, such a traumatic injury means “You have to pay your dues and be on snow every day, and push yourself and every day work toward that day.”
That said, she recently left Frisco for Mammoth Mountain, where there has an opportunity to hop back on a trampoline. It’s where Bleiler has learned to do her cork 720s and 900s. She’s ready to get back, but she’s taking it one step at a time to get there.
“As much as I want to put a time frame on that … it’s not helping to do that. It’s counterproductive,” she said, adding that she’s not worried about Sochi.
“I have so much time for that. … It’s all in there, I know how to do it all, it’s just believing I can. It comes with time when it wants to. I can’t force it, I can only keep pushing it every day.”
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