As the Olympic Games inch closer, athletes are competing in qualifying events around the world. Professional snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler has her sights set on Sochi. This would be the last Olympic Games for the 32-year-old Aspen resident who’s already competed in two. This season, she’s coming back from a serious injury. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.
In 2010, snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler took gold for the FOURTH time at the Winter X Games in Aspen. Her list of accomplishments is impressive. In 2006, she was awarded the silver medal at the Torino Olympics and she was a finalist at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. She’s also had first place finishes at World Cups and national contests. Now, she’s preparing for Sochi.
"I’m feeling good. I’m going into this Olympic qualifying process differently than I ever have before," she says.
She’s recovering from an injury she suffered over a year ago.
"I had a trampoline accident in June of 2012 and shattered my eye socket, broke my nose, gave myself a concussion and had to have eye surgery and dealt with double vision for about six months."
Following the accident, she underwent surgery and started rehab. Bleiler still struggles with double vision when she looks straight up and last season she tackled only a few competitions. But, she’s back on her snowboard now and working toward her full potential.
"I’m, at this point, riding with great amplitude and feeling really good about my base, but I’m still getting back my greatest tricks and still getting my run together."
Earlier this month, Bleiler took sixth in her first Olympic Qualifier, the Dew Tour in Breckenridge. She’s trying to grab one of four spots on the women’s snowboard halfpipe team.
"I would say her chances of being one of those four women right now are quite good," says Tyler Lindsay.
He's Snowboard Director at the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. He’s coached Bleiler over the years. He says the competition is fierce this year. But, Bleiler’s hard work and experience set her apart.
"There are a lot of young athletes coming up right now who are very strong and have some very strong tricks. But, in Gretchen’s case I think one of the things that will set her apart is that she’s been there before."
Sure, the bright lights, big crowds and massive 22-foot halfpipe are familiar to Bleiler. But, the sport is changing, she says, as it grows in popularity.
"With all of this attention comes changes in the sport because bigger sponsors come in, which means more money and more pressure. And so, things are slowly changing," she says.
What used to be a “bad boy” sport outlawed at most mountain resorts has become an international hit. Bleiler hopes the freedom and community she says defines the sport aren’t lost as snowboarding grows.
"I hope that the spirit that was in the beginning of snowboarding and that still is there will always remain."
For Bleiler, this season is her last attempt at qualifying for an Olympics.
"It’s been so amazing. I’ve kind of grown up in snowboarding and I’ve learned along the way and I’ve become the person I am today because of snowboarding and because of the lessons I’ve learned on the mountain. I’ll always be involved in snowboarding but this will definitely be my last Olympic go!"
The Olympic team will be named before the Games start in Sochi on February 7th.