Gretchen Bleiler, who is now in her thirteenth year with the U.S. Snowboarding team, says the run-up to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics will be her last. The four-time X Games gold medalist won Olympic silver in Torino in 2006, finished fifth in Vancouver in 2010, and qualified for pipe finals in the second spot at the second U.S. team selection event in Copper, Colo. on Wednesday. A compelling mini-documentary covering Bleiler's inspiring comeback from a near-devastating eye injury was also just released this week. It seemed like a good time to catch up.
XGames.com: Having been to the Olympics before, how strong is your drive to get back this time around?
Gretchen Bleiler: There was a turning point for me after the Vancouver Olympics where I felt like I still had more that I wanted to do. There was more that I wanted to give to push women's snowboarding, but I knew if I was going to stay in it I would have to go about it a different way than I had been.
I spent the next year-plus re-learning how to spin, and how to cork my spins off-axis -- because it looks better and it's more efficient, and you can hold your grab the whole spin.
Typically women's spinning has been really flat, and grabbing just to get it in. I really wanted to break my riding down so it looked good and it was done with purpose and meaning. It was kind of like re-learning to snowboard again, and it really got me fired up, changed my riding, and helped with my amplitude. A few seasons ago everything started clicking and coming into place.
Then I had a pretty big accident on a trampoline and last season was sort of the recovery season. Now I'm just building back to that place. I'm really excited heading into this year: I love snowboarding, I love pushing myself, I love competing, and I'm just excited for this season.
I'm excited to enjoy it. I think the Olympics brings out the best in everybody. It brings the whole level up.
Speaking of bringing the level up, I want to ask about some of your competitors. Let's talk about Kelly Clark.
What I admire about Kelly is that she decided a few years ago that this is what she wanted to do. ... She's been on this consistent build that, over the past few years, has paid off.
When she learned that front 10 right before the Vancouver Olympics it was kind of game over. She's always been known for her amplitude, but before the 10 it wasn't so much about the technicality. It was just, "Wow, she goes so big."
Now with that 10 and how big she does it, she's up there on top all the time. It's great because it's pushing everyone. That's where I got my inspiration, because I wanted to get these bigger tricks as well.
How much of a game changer was it to see Elena Hight land a double at the X Games last year?
The fact that Elena did this backside rodeo double cork -- she was the first one to land that in competition ever, male or female, and that's saying a lot. I'm so proud of her for that.
I was there when she was learning it and saw the whole process, and was so wowed by the composure that she had. She knew exactly what she was doing. She knew what she was working for. And then to go up there and see her get it was just so impressive.
The double cork... You can't touch that really, but then again it's not just about one trick.
One trick cannot win the Olympics or win the X Games. It's going to take amplitude, it's going to take back-to-back combos and really great switch riding -- and it just might take something nobody's ever seen before. You're going to need to be able to do all of it, and in Sochi you're going to need to do all of it in what is likely to be a pretty s----y pipe.
How do you get into that personal space where you need to be to face down those challenges?
This will be my fourth Olympic qualifying experience. I've had the best-case scenario where I won four of the five Olympic qualifiers and easily breeezed onto the team, and then I've had the experience, before the 2002 Olympics, where I tied with my best friend Tricia Byrnes for the very last spot.
It came down to not just a tiebreaker, but a triple tiebreaker, and she ended up going and I didn't. So I've had the best-case scenario and then I've had that so-close, worst-case scenario.
I've also had a lot of years of competing, so I know what I need to do. I know technically what I need to do on my snowboard and I also know the space I need to be in to to get there and just enjoy the process.
I mean, you can break down how stressful this year is going to be, with five Olympic qualifiers in five weeks and the team isn't announced until two weeks before the Olympics -- or you can just say, "this is snowboarding" and go out there and have a lot of fun.
Every competition is just another competition. This will probably be my last Olympics, so I just want to enjoy it. I know what it takes to get on that team, and the best way to do it is just to enjoy every minute of this process.