Aspen snowboarding star Gretchen Bleiler is back as sight to see at X Games
Gretchen Bleiler’s push for her third Olympics was nearly derailed last summer during training. Practicing a double flip on a trampoline in Park City, Utah, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist took a knee to her face, breaking her nose and shattering her eye socket.
“They essentially had to build a floor for my eyeball again,” the 31-year-old Aspenite said this week by phone as she prepared for the Winter X Games. “It was definitely the worst injury I’ve ever experienced. Such a different level than the usual knee or shoulder. When your vision is affected, it totally changes everything.”
A few days after the accident, Bleiler had surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors inserted a titanium bridge to stabilize her eye, and she couldn’t do anything for six weeks.
She was seeing double as she got back on her snowboard, threatening a long halfpipe career that includes four X Games medals. A pro athlete for more than a decade, Bleiler went full bore into rehab. But it wasn’t the typical sweat-through-the-pain sessions in the gym.
She worked on her eyes for several months, doing things such as pulling her eyelid and looking up and “all kinds of eye stretches and eye exercises to break it free from its stuck position,” she said. “My natural instinct was to go hard and push myself, but that’s the way it works with this. It just takes time.”
Last month, Bleiler got back on her snowboard and rode the superpipe at Copper Mountain.
“That’s when I realized everything I had been working on had paid off,” she said. “First run into the pipe and I could see. I wasn’t seeing double.”
Kelly Clark, the driving force in women’s snowboarding, was at the trampoline when Bleiler was injured, and they have talked often during Bleiler’s recovery. They have been competing against each other for years, and Clark said Wednesday she is confident Bleiler will return to her former self on the hill.
“It’s amazing how far she’s come,” Clark said. “We’ve been out riding together and we’ve been out training. She has definitely made some amazing improvements and come a long way. I’m excited to see her make a full recovery.
“If anybody can do it, it’s Gretchen.”
Bleiler, who is the defacto athlete host of the X Games in her hometown, was absent Wednesday from the annual pre-event news conference. She usually is there talking up the town and the area.
But at night Bleiler was in the Buttermilk superpipe during a practice session under the lights. She was the last snowboarder out of the pipe, even doing a final run during the start of the skiers’ practice time.
Last week, Bleiler did an airbag session at California’s Mammoth Mountain, developing new tricks and honing her arsenal of airs through repetition. While she is taking her progress toward competing in Saturday’s final “one day at a time,” she’s firmly set on the Olympics next year in Sochi, Russia.
It might not be until Saturday when she decides whether she will compete at the X Games. The women’s snowboard superpipe finals (there is no qualifying round) are scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Saturday. There are practice sessions scheduled the next three days, including 6 p.m. Saturday, just before the finals.
Last year, before her injury, she was riding “better than I ever have in my career,” she said, developing corked — or off-axis — spinning tricks and working toward the elusive 1080 (three full rotations) that is on the cusp of exploding in women’s snowboarding halfpipe.
Clark has a 1080 that has helped her become the winningest female in snowboarding.
Bleiler said the 1080 “will be very important” in future competitions, but differentiating yourself with style and a wide array of tricks is equally important.
“The 10 is definitely something I’m working on, but I think it’s always good for everyone to keep an open mind,” Bleiler said. “That’s what I love about snowboarding. You don’t have to follow a certain path. It’s about creativity and individuality and creating your own path.”
At 31, Bleiler is almost twice as old as U.S. Snowboarding teammate Arielle Gold of Steamboat Springs. Being the veteran of the team is an edge, she said.
“Experience equals confidence and I’m finding that the more experienced I am and the longer I’ve been in the sport, things are coming together easier and better than they ever have,” she said.
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