Although the snowboarding contingent for the Sochi Winter Games has not yet been named, fans cannot count out Gretchen Bleiler. Having turned professional at the tender age of 14, her mark on the sport is nothing short of impressive. From becoming the first female to land a Crippler 540 in competition to a Triple Crown of Snowboarding in 2003, very few can match her accomplishments.
Beyond her athletic prowess is also a beauty that also makes her a sex symbol for female sport. Featured in FHM Magazine in February 2004, she shared the cover with fellow X-Games enthusiasts Tara Dakides and Jamie Little. Of note, she was also one of the athletes featured on the variant covers for ESPN’s 2011 Body Issue.
With ambitions of gold at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, it is the only accomplishment that has eluded her. A tiebreaker forced a then 19-year old Bleiler to miss the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games. She would bounce back by qualifying for Torino 2006. This followed on the heels of a memorable 2005 where she grabbed gold at the X-Games and Gravity Games.
Ironically, Torino would be the only silver medal performance of her 2006. In a year where Fuel TV named her Female Snowboarder of the Year, she was the Overall Grand Prix Champion and enjoyed a first-place finish at the 2006 FIS World Cup. Despite entering the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games as a gold medal favorite, the X-Games Superpipe Gold Medalist in 2010 would experience heartbreak. Falling on both of her final runs, she would leave Vancouver with an 11th place finish.
Looking to become one of only four women to qualify for snowboarding on the US Winter Games Team for Sochi 2014, Bleiler has had to overcome an entire new set of odds. An accident on a trampoline in June 2012 placed her career in jeopardy. A double back flip resulted in a knee to her face, smashing her right eye socket, breaking her nose and a concussion. While surgery was able to repair the damaged socket and vision exercises allowed her to return to competition, it was a recovery that took over six months.
Finishing third in the halfpipe at the 2013 New Zealand Winter games would provide Bleiler with a moment of redemption. Fellow American and friend Kelly Clark earned first place as Bleiler returned to the podium for the first time in two seasons. Clark was ecstatic for her, testament to the high regard that Bleiler is held in. As a side note, when she won silver in Torino, teammate Hannah Teter organized a parade in her honor at Aspen.
Despite the occasional struggles with double vision, a redeeming moment in New Zealand served as an invaluable confidence builder. She definitely has the emotional intelligence to handle such struggles. Working on a teacher’s certification in meditation through the Chopra Center, she is quite possibly, at her peak, achieving a personal best off the field which may contribute to her dream of Winter Games gold. Of note, she shares her experiences about the journey through meditation and the education as part of a blog for the USOC.
Even if her Winter Games dream does not come true, her humanitarian and environmental efforts make her a champion more than any competition could measure. From the Aspen Snowmass Save Snow campaign to her work with Boarding 4 Breast Cancer, she was also recognized by Planet Green as one of its Top 5 Eco Athletes. She has even helped pave the way for future female boarders by creating the first-ever all-girls halfpipe competition called the Snow Angels Invitational. As a proud supporter of the Women’s Sports Foundation, she has truly paid it forward.