Snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler's name has been synonymous with X Games Aspen since 2002, when the event first came to her hometown. But this year will be her last shot at an X Games medal. Bleiler announced Wednesday that she will be retiring from competition after this season.
"It definitely makes me sad," Bleiler, 32, said at the X Games Aspen 2014 opening news conference. "I've grown up through the X Games, and it's like a chapter in my life is ending. But I'm so grateful I've had such a long career filled with amazing friends and memories."
Bleiler, who started snowboarding when she was 11 and began competing at 15, admits she choked the first year she rode in Aspen in front of her friends and family. Just one year out from graduating from Aspen High School, she finished eighth.
By the following year, however, she had figured out how to handle the pressure with style, winning gold in 2003 and 2005, silver in 2007, and gold again in 2008 and 2010.
In addition to her five X Games medals, Bleiler's career included a 13-year run with the U.S. Snowboarding team that took her to the Olympics twice: for the 2006 Torino Winter Games, where she won silver, and for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, where she finished 11th.
Bleiler had hoped to compete in one more Olympics, but she did not make the team for the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
"There was a turning point for me after the Vancouver Olympics where I felt like I still had more that I wanted to do," Bleiler told XGames.com in December. "There was more that I wanted to give to push women's snowboarding."
But Bleiler, who shattered her eye socket and suffered a concussion in a trampoline training accident in 2012, now says she never fully recovered from those injuries. She struggled through the grueling Olympic selection process for the U.S. team over the past two months, and podium finishes have proved elusive for her this season.
"Gretchen's been my longtime friend, comrade and competitor in the sport, and today's news was definitely an emotional moment," said Kelly Clark, a six-time X Games gold medalist who will be going for her fourth consecutive X Games Aspen gold in SuperPipe this week. "We've been traveling and competing together for 15 years, and I am very much the snowboarder I am today thanks to her drive and her excellence. She'll be missed as both a competitor and a friend to everyone."
Progressive technical tricks such as frontside 900s, crippler 720s and corked spins became signatures of Bleiler's competition runs. She was the first female action sports athlete to appear on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, in 2008, just before winning her third X Games gold and the 2008 ESPY award for Best Female Action Sports Athlete.
Bleiler serves on the board of directors for Protect Our Winters and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, and she says she's leaving the sport now partly to focus on those advocacy efforts and on a new path as a meditation coach.
"I've been in snowboarding for a very long time and I'm so fortunate that I've accomplished more than I ever expected to," Bleiler said. "I still love snowboarding and I'm always going to be a competitive person, but there are other things that I'm ready to focus on."
Bleiler said she's thrilled to be leaving her sport in good hands.
"We have an amazing crew of ladies leading the charge now, and not just for the U.S. but around the world," Bleiler said. "I'm loving where it's headed, and I'm excited to continue to watch and support."
Bleiler will compete in the Women's Snowboard SuperPipe final Saturday, airing live on ABC at 4 p.m. ET.