- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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2008 WINTER X GAMES
THE GRETCHEN BLEILER SHOW
THE GREATEST SHOW IN SNOW SPORTS HITS ASPEN JAN. 24 TO 27: FOUR DAYS, 17 EVENTS AND 200-PLUS STARS WHO DO THEIR OWN STUNTS! TOP BILLING GOES TO THE HOMEGROWN HALFPIPE CHAMP, WHO'S MORE THAN READY FOR HER CLOSE-UP.
BY ALYSSA ROENIGK
PH0T0GRAPH5 BY MICHAEL EDWARDS
THROW A DART AT A TV SCHEDULE, and you can't help but hit a reality show. Alas, the only reality in any of these offerings is the lack of real life or real people. That's because TV producers have yet to discover Gretchen Bleiler, a 26-year-old snowboarder with the face of an angel and the work ethic of a Clydesdale. Glam without trying, Bleiler is also real without effort-and sexy in snowboard pants. All of which left us with no choice but to develop our own Bleiler project, a six-episode season that opens in Breckenridge, Colo., and leads up to the cliff-hanger finale: Winter X. The Games are in Aspen, after all, where Bleiler is a one-name star and, literally, the girl next door. Soon enough, local store windows will fill with "Go Gretchen!" signs, Gretchen's Chocolate Espresso Martini will be the hottest pour at local hot spot Toppers, and Aspenites in "Gretchen Rocks!" T's will flood Buttermilk Mountain. Winter X might be the most important contest of the snow-sports season, but in reality, it's just another episode of The Gretchen Bleiler Show.
EPISODE 1: "THE FASHION DESIGNER"
THE SCENE: A Breckenridge, Colo., lodge
It's 7 p.m., three weeks before Christmas and five days before the season's first grand prix, in Breckenridge. Bleiler layers on a sunshine-yellow snowboard jacket-ironic, considering she's best known to mainstream types as the snowboarder who takes her clothes off in magazines.
She fingers the zippers and magnetic closures and the faux fur lining the hood. "I think we need to rearrange the buttons," she says. "And how about using leather for the zipper pulls?" Designer Rheina Yosuico logs Bleiler's suggestions in a notebook, then asks, "What else? This is your line."
In 1991, when Bleiler moved from Dayton to Aspen with her mom and three brothers after her parents divorced, no one would have predicted she'd be the first athlete to land a signature line with Oakley. "That first year was hard," she says, especially for a girl who tight-rolled her jeans. "Kids would ask, 'Why do you dress like that?' I'd say, 'Because that's how we dress in Ohio!'" And because she knew what made her feel comfortable. Over the years, Bleiler has learned the hard way that it's always best to stick to those instincts.
<<< FLASHBACK >>> It's late 2003, and Bleiler is shivering in a New York photo studio, naked except for slyly placed splashes of metallic body paint. Fellow snowboarder Tara Dakides and X Games TV host Jamie Little have also been turned into human canvases, but Bleiler is the most uncomfortable, her confidence shed with her clothes. Soon, one of these photos will be the cover of FHM. Her brothers will see it. Her dad. Her friends. "I almost didn't get on that flight to New York," Bleiler says. "I called my agent, told him I didn't think I should do it, and he said, 'Go. This will be good for you.' So I went."
In 2000, Bleiler became the first woman to sign a head-to-toe deal with Oakley. For a company that defines style, she was a marketing dream: beautiful and badass. Today, women's sports is dominated by three one-name stars: Serena, Venus, Maria. Gretchen wants to be next on that list. "Her style is sophisticated yet feminine and edgy," Yosuico says. "She's empowering."
Bleiler's new line of clothes, called the GB Collection and set to launch in September, has been a revelation for athlete and company. Bleiler arrived at the initial design meeting armed with pages ripped from high-fashion mags. She suggested elements normally found on the runway, such as jackets with diagonal zippers, leather closures and custom fabrics. The line's logo, a lion's head, was inspired by a necklace Bleiler wears when she rides. "The lion was everything I wanted to be," Bleiler says. "Powerful, courageous, poised and strong."
That Bleiler spends hours agonizing over fabrics and buttons doesn't surprise those close to her. She's known for her perfectionist's attention to detail and her realist's knowledge that perfection is unattainable. Shortly after signing an equipment deal with K2 Snowboards, in 2003, Bleiler designed her first signature board, the Mix. Today, it's one of the best-selling female boards. Last May, she dropped by the K2 offices for final approval on the '08 model. "She wasn't satisfied with the graphics," says Danielle Hambleton, K2's global marketing manager, "so we went back to the drawing board. We trust her instincts that much."
EPISODE 2: "THE CRITIC"
THE SCENE: Driving east on I-70. It's 5:30 a.m.
The grand prix begins in four days, riders are flooding into town, "and I'm driving to Denver," Bleiler says, eyes heavy behind the wheel of her tan Xterra. Her meeting with Oakley ended just six hours ago, and now she's off to shoot a commercial. "I should be practicing," she says.
It's the catch-22 of Bleiler's world: The more sponsors she lands, the more money she banks, and the more obligations she must fulfill. All pro snow-boarders earn most of their income from board and endemic clothing sponsors, shilling for mainstream companies from Nike to Napster on the side. Few break the six-figure ceiling; Bleiler, thanks to talent and sexy looks, has crashed through and cashed in. But today's Chevrolet shoot is her third this week; she's ridden the halfpipe just two days this month. "When I was young, I wanted everything I have now," she says. "Now I look at the young girls and think, Man, I want that again."
As a kid, Bleiler mastered new sports within weeks, from swimming, diving and tennis to hockey and soccer. She snowboarded for the first time at 11, at an after-school outing on Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain. "The instructor told me I was a natural," Bleiler says. "I'm sure he said that to everyone." By her senior year at Aspen High, in 1999, Bleiler had given up hockey and soccer-the sports she thought would be her ticket to the Olympics-to snowboard. The sport had just debuted the year before, at the 1998 Nagano Games.
<<< FLASHBACK >>> February 2006: Bleiler, the gold medal favorite, is at the bottom of the Olympic halfpipe in Torino, waiting for the score of her second and final run. She's in third place but has just uncorked a stunner. "I thought it was a gold medal run," she says. But the judges decide she is second best. "That was the most bitter pill she's had to swallow," says dad Larry. "But she kept a proud face."
After graduation, as her friends headed to college, Bleiler took a job at Aspen's Main Street Bakery and waited for snow. She made herself a deal: If snowboarding didn't work out in one year, she'd enroll at Colorado College the next fall. In the meantime, Bleiler smiled as parents delivered stories about her friends' college lives. "I knew they were thinking, Gretchen, what are you doing?"
What she was doing was winning medals in major contests and catching an invitation from the U.S. snowboarding team. At 19, she became a fully funded pro with deals rolling in. "She got her payback," says mom Robin Gorog. "As her career was taking off, her friends were graduating-and coming home to work at the bakery."
Bleiler has arrived at a Denver production studio, where she's joined by U.S. snowboard teammates Lindsey Jacobellis (of 2006 Olympic goof-up fame), Steve Fisher (last year's Winter X halfpipe champ), boardercross rider Nate Holland and coach Mike Jankowski. All five will be featured in the commercials.
Halfway through the shoot, the producer asks the riders to write a score on their hands. In the next scene, Fisher, eyes closed, takes a dreamy mental halfpipe run as his friends follow along in their own minds. The scene ends with Fisher opening his eyes to see his teammates, one by one, hold up their hands to show how they've scored his run. No one has been told what number to use. But so far, each reveals a palm emblazoned with a "10." Bleiler goes last. She smiles, raises her hand and reads her score aloud: "8.73," she says. "Sorry, Steve. No one's perfect."
She's only half-kidding. Bleiler would never give herself a 10 (what would she work toward?), and her friends know it. Thing is, if this improv had come from, say, Jacobellis, she'd likely have been called a spoilsport or a diva. But Bleiler flashes that smile, and everyone laughs. By the end of the shoot, the director is pretty certain the idea was his in the first place.
EPISODE 3: "THE ROLE MODEL"
THE SCENE: The top of a run at Vail ski resort, three days before the contest
Bleiler is restless. Three hours into a photo session for her clothing line, and the only riding she's done is from the chairlift to the shoot site. She's tired of pretending to snowboard. And ...
Just ahead, Bleiler spots some kids launching flips off a hand-built jump. Her eyes light up. She hikes up and asks to take a turn. "Sure," says 10-year-old M.J., fully aware of who's asking. Bleiler drops in and launches a backflip.
M.J.'s younger sister Emma asks Gretchen for pointers. "It's my first time," Emma says. Bleiler explains the fine points of flipping: "Commit! Commit! Commit!" Emma drops in and does something resembling a half-twisting front flip.
"That was awesome!" Bleiler yells. "You went for it! You rock!" She takes another turn, poses for a group photo and signs their jackets. If there's a way to pinpoint that thing some people have that allows them to connect with others, this is it: It's her ability to drop in on a bunch of kids and leave them feeling like she was the lucky one that day.
EPISODE 4: "THE GROWN-UP"
THE SCENE: Bleiler is seated in front of a mike at radio station KSMT
The contest just two days away, Bleiler finally sneaks in two hours of practice this morning. She wants to add technical tricks to her run, so she works on a cab 540 (a 540* spin with a fakie approach). She also hopes to add the Michalchuk, a backflip back-side 540 off the front-side wall, a trick no woman has landed in competition. Bleiler already begins each run with an inverted spin called the Crippler-a trick no other woman does. That's because the learning process is painful: Launching a spinning backflip off an icy wall generally means a lot of face-first crashes. "The Crippler has gotten me a lot of my success," she says. "But it took a long time and multiple black eyes to figure out."
Despite her track record (2003, 2005 Winter X halfpipe gold; 2007 silver; 2006 Olympic silver), Bleiler knows that Kelly Clark gets higher air and Torah Bright has the most technical run. "I want to go that big," she says. "I'm very competitive." Which is why weeks like this wear on her mind and chip away at her confidence. She's overwhelmed, nervous even, about this weekend's contest. She'd feel a lot better if she'd spent more time working on her run and less on the other stuff. But the other stuff pays the bills, so she's learned to focus during what practice time she does have. "I work my ass off," she says. "That's my biggest strength."
Bleiler is also tired of the criticism that she's only a halfpipe rider. "I hate that," she says. "I can hit jumps, ride powder, drop cliffs." This season, before she ramps up for the 2010 Olympics, she's cutting back on comps and heading into the backcountry to shoot videos. "I'm comfortable in the halfpipe," she says. "And that means I need a change."
<<< FLASHBACK >>> Bleiler is in Breckenridge for the first grand prix of the 2004-05 season, hot off a scorching 2003-04 (U.S. Open, Winter X, Vans Triple Crown and grand prix champ). She's tired of talking about one-trick-pony Gretchen, the halfpipe star. So she signs up for slopestyle, an event she rarely competes in, and easily makes the finals. Then, on a practice run, she overshoots the landing on a backside 360. "Wow," says Bleiler, "so that's what it feels like to blow out your knee."
It's 1 p.m. and Bleiler, who's shooting X Games print and radio ads, thinks the script is cheesy. "Do I really have to refer to myself in the third person?" she asks. But her tone is helpful, not threatening. "I've written a couple lines I'd like to try." Agency execs wear I'm-gonna-be-fired-for-this looks, and the ad's copywriter is on speakerphone. "Okay," comes the voice on the phone. "Try yours." And there it is again, that thing. Without anyone else's realizing it, Bleiler is running this show.
In the past, Bleiler knew what she wanted. But like that FHM shoot and two that followed, she often compromised for the chance to promote her sport, and herself. Today, that would never happen.
EPISODE 5: "THE WINNER"
THE SCENE: At the bottom of the Breckenridge halfpipe, surrounded by friends
It's Saturday afternoon, and Bleiler is on top of the world, and the podium. Despite only a few hours of practice, she won the season's first major contest. She's that good. And focused. She had a great day of practice yesterday and dusted off her run during warmups. Then, in the contest, she landed all of her banger tricks-Crippler included. "That felt good," Bleiler says.
Winter X is just a month away, and she can finally stop posing and start practicing. The timing couldn't be better. With last year's silver fresh in her mind, pressure is high for this hometown girl. But so is support. This is The Gretchen Bleiler Show, after all. Everyone else is just riding through.
EPISODE 6: "THE GOLD MEDAL GIRL?"
THE SCENE: The Buttermilk Mountain halfpipe
Tune in Fri., Jan. 25, 9:30 p.m., on ESPN.
After being fooled once (ESPN The Mag, Jan. 19, 2004), it was shame on them (ahem, us). Fooled twice (FHM, February 2004)? Shame on Bleiler. But after being fooled a third time (JANE, August 2006), it's time to fire agents and rethink images. "It never felt right to take my clothes off," Bleiler says. "It never felt like me. It sucks. When you're a woman in sports, people want you to show some skin." So get a good look, fellas. Bleiler's done with peep shows. -A.R.