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Gretchen Bleiler Takes Flight

After overcoming a serious eye injury, Olympic silver medalist gretchenBleiler is ready to return to the Winter Games

Trampoline flips were nothing new for snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler. She had practiced her aerial tricks that way “a million times,” she says. So on June 26, 2012, it was business as usual for Bleiler as she worked on her double back flips at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah. That is, until a bad landing sent her to the hospital and put her future in jeopardy. “On this particular flip, I threw too hard, but didn’t throw hard enough for the double. I ended up with my knee in my face,” Bleiler recalls. “It was scary.”

The accident was serious — a shattered right eye socket, broken nose, and a concussion. The injuries kept Bleiler, an Olympic silver medalist and four-time Winter X Games gold medalist, away from competition for nearly eight months. And even when she was physically strong enough to return to the snow, her double vision prevented her from a full recovery.

But with the 2014 Sochi Olympics just around the corner, Bleiler has been hard at work training to make her comeback. Battling past lingering vision problems, Bleiler, 32, finished third in the halfpipe at the New Zealand Winter Games in August. “It’s been a long road getting back to where I need to be,” says Bleiler, who hopes to make the four-member women’s halfpipe team that will go to the Winter Games. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to represent the U.S. and do my best.”

The Brave One

The injuries that Bleiler sustained are enough to make anyone give up snowboarding. However, she wasn’t quitting, not even after an accident that threatened her eyesight. “[Doctors] had to realign my eyeball. It was that bad. But I had to get back,” she says. “I couldn’t hang it up yet.”

That gutsiness and determination to return to her acrobatic snowboarding ways is what powered her through a grueling recovery. It’s also what got her into the sport in the first place.

At age 10, Bleiler and her family moved from Dayton, Ohio, to Aspen, Colorado. At age 11, she snowboarded for the first time. Bleiler recalls falling a lot during her introduction to the sport, but that didn’t stop her from enjoying it. “It was a challenge at first,” she says. “And even though I fell a ton that day, I was hooked. I loved the creativity of snowboarding.”

It didn’t take long for Bleiler to fully embrace the sport. She started training with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. As a senior in high school, Bleiler made the decision to become a professional snowboarder once she graduated. Soon after, her career took off.

Despite being a self-described nervous competitor, Bleiler picked up her first Winter X Games gold medal in the SuperPipe in 2003. Three more gold medals in that event followed, in addition to a silver medal, all the while making the crippler 540 (one and a half rotations while doing a back flip in the halfpipe), her signature trick. Bleiler became even more daring, using the crippler 720 (two rotations while doing a back flip) in competitions.

In 2006, Bleiler used her crippler and captured silver at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Her performance at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, however, didn’t go as well. Bleiler didn’t medal. “Turin was a fairy tale experience. My Vancouver experience was the evil step sister,” Bleiler says. “It was good to have both experiences because it’s good to know it can go both ways.”

Road to Recovery

After Vancouver, Bleiler dedicated herself to expanding her bag of tricks. So when she arrived at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence last year, Bleiler’s focus was on perfecting her double back flips. “The first day I got there, I did a couple that were easy. The next day, I put a lot of pressure [on myself] to really nail them and started overthinking the flips,” Bleiler remembers.

What followed was her career-threatening injury. After the accident, Bleiler’s headaches and sensitivity to light took weeks to go away. “I’ve had concussions, hurt my shoulder, and blown out my knee,” Bleiler says of injuries, including an ACL tear that made her miss the 2004 season. “But I’ve never gone through anything so traumatic as this. Even the simple act of driving a car was difficult.”

Once she was cleared to start working out again, in October 2012, Bleiler was ready to go full-steam ahead. The only problem was she couldn’t. Her vision wasn’t the same.

That’s when Bleiler learned she could no longer press fast forward. She had to be patient. “I beat myself up,” Bleiler says. “I had to learn to be gentle with myself. I finally just said, I’m going to go easy and things will come back naturally.”

Bleiler and her trainer not only worked on getting her body stronger but also improving her sight with vision exercises. The combination therapy helped. Bleiler’s sight got better, and her confidence returned. 

Bleiler fought her way back to snowboarding, and now she has a good chance to make the U.S. team. Getting a spot won’t be easy — she has heavy competition, including 2002 Olympic halfpipe gold medalist Kelly Clark — but Bleiler is confident that her hard work will pay off. “I am working really hard to get back to the Olympics and back on the podium,” she says. “[If I make the team], I want to enjoy it, especially after what I’ve been through.”

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Photos: Harry How/Getty Images, Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images

gretchen bleier snowboard
gretchen bleier snowboard