Bleiler ready to turn heads

Already a media favorite, she begins quest after missing Salt Lake

Snowboarding

Winter Olympics

February 13, 2006|By DAVID WHARTON | DAVID WHARTON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TURIN, Italy -- All the predictable emotions swept over Gretchen Bleiler that night.

Shock. Anger. Grief.

U.S. officials had just announced the snowboard team for the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and Bleiler, tied for third in the qualifying contests, had missed the cut by way of a complex formula. To make matters worse, she got the news away from home, sitting in a hotel room.

"It all kind of hit me," she says. "Really hard."

It was a defining moment, the type of setback that can make a world-class athlete even more intense, training doubly hard, focusing on nothing but making the next Olympic team. Except Bleiler isn't that kind of athlete.

No resentment tinges her words, no hint of vengeance in a school girl's smile framed by straight blond hair, a look that makes her seem younger than 24.

So when she finally gets her chance to stand atop the halfpipe as an Olympian - and blossoming media star - here today, it will not be the result of a massive chip on her shoulder. If anything, that night four years ago made her want the Olympics, well, a little less.

"These things happen for a reason," she says. "They teach you different lessons."

The Games had been a dream since she was a little girl watching on television. Not at all physically imposing - she has a body made for magazine covers, but more on that later - Bleiler nonetheless displayed athletic talent as a youngster, excelling in swimming, soccer and ice hockey.

A big part of her competitiveness came from having three brothers.

"We were always pushing each other, seeing how fast we could run down the stairs, doing sprint drills in front of the house," she says.

When Bleiler was 10, her mother moved the family from Ohio to Aspen, Colo. Soon, the brothers were snowboarding and Bleiler had found a sport that, as she puts it, "fit perfectly with my personality."

She was good enough to join the U.S. team straight out of high school in 1999 and win the national halfpipe title two years later.

In the months before the 2002 Games, all those years of dreaming, imagining what it might feel like, got to Bleiler.

"I wanted it so badly," she recalls. "Because of that, I was so nervous that I wasn't having fun and when I'm not having fun, I ride with hesitation."

After shaky performances in the Olympic qualifiers, Bleiler was tied for the third and final spot on the team. The tiebreaker went to her friend, Tricia Byrnes. Flying into Aspen, Bleiler stopped to watch Clark win gold in the Olympic halfpipe final on an airport television. An epiphany soon followed.

"To be so stressed out doesn't make sense," she says. "It's snowboarding. It's not brain surgery."

Riding with a renewed sense of fun - no pressure, no hesitation - Bleiler dominated the next season, thanks in part to the development of a particular maneuver known as a crippler.

In the world of halfpipe, where "spin to win" is the motto, the inverted whirling trick, combined with a daring 900-degree spin and a couple of 540s, separated her from the pack. And if this were a Hollywood script, she would have sailed along to Turin.

Things did not go that smoothly.

First came a detour in the summer of 2003. The magazine FHM wanted to run a feature on her, so Bleiler flew to New York and did the interview, along with a provocative photo shoot in a bikini. A month later, the editors of the men's magazine called to say the story had changed - now it was a cover piece on the girls of the Winter X Games.

Oh, by the way, they added, we're going to shoot you in body paint. As in nude, with the swimsuit painted on this time.

"I'm definitely not the girl who loves prancing around in a bikini," she says. "The day I was supposed to fly out, I was on the phone about to cancel."

But the increased hoopla, more interviews, more photo shoots, also had her feeling run down.

In December 2003, while practicing for a slopestyle event at Breckenridge, Colo., she overshot a jump and suffered a torn knee ligament that required surgery.

Returning to competition in 2005, Bleiler won a World Cup event in Bardonecchia - site of today's Olympic halfpipe - and the made-for-television Winter X Games. This winter, four wins in five qualifying events left no doubt about a spot on the U.S. team.

"She's clearly one of the best riders in the world," U.S. halfpipe Coach Bud Keene says. "Her experience, her bag of tricks and the way that she puts it all together are certainly going to make her a contender."

David Wharton writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Snowboarding Tonight, 8, chs. 11, 4, 8, 25

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