Wha-bamm. That's how Gretchen Bleiler describes her body slamming the halfpipe floor during the mid-December Olympic trials at Breckenridge, Colo. She under-rotated a 900 and dropped about 15 feet to the icy pipe floor. Bleiler, whose fine features and quick smile are easy on a camera lens, is one of the world's elite halfpipe riders. With the fall on her final run, she finished second to Hannah Teter. But this is the first of five Olympic qualifying Grand Prix events, and the 24-year-old Bleiler is pleased. Standing at the base of the pipe, she laughs as she smacks the back of one hand against the palm of the other to create the proper sound effect.
Moments earlier, the 900 also took out Lindsey Jacobellis, the face of Visa's new ad campaign and another darling of the U.S. team. But making the Olympic team in halfpipe would be a bonus for Jacobellis, a 20-year-old better known as a Snowboard Cross racer, the fastest in the world. After her fall, Jacobellis unclipped her bindings and waved to the crowd, exiting the pipe by lying on her board and riding toboggan-style.
Such is the life of two of the hottest jocks lining up to compete in the Feb. 10-26 Olympic Winter Games. The mission assigned to them for Torino, at least the unspoken one, is to toss the creaky Games a lifeline. Sure, Bleiler and Jacobellis could-should-win gold. But execs at both the IOC and NBC get excited just envisioning Bleiler and Jacobellis riding across the TV screen. It's a testimony to skill, looks and marketing prowess in a sport brought to sizzle at just the right moment.
The skill part, of course, is well documented. Last season, in a return from a knee injury, Bleiler won nearly every major halfpipe comp, including the X Games and the U.S. Open. Her six-trick run includes a 900, back-to-back 540s and a Crippler 540-a back flip with one-and-a-half spins.
Jacobellis, on the other hand, has earned her props with straight up speed in Snowboard Cross: six-at-a-time, first-to-the-bottom, if-you-ain't-rubbin'-you-ain't-racin' sprints down the mountain. She's the 2005 world champ and a three-time X Games winner. The event makes its Olympic debut in Torino, and Jacobellis not only is likely to be one of two U.S. women's racers, she's the only rider-male or female-attempting to make the U.S. team in Cross and Pipe.
Bleiler and Jacobellis-both blond over blue over bodies most women would kill for-are hard evidence that the evolution of snowboarding continues. The sport of perceived deadbeats eight years ago, today it's the hot date of the Olympics. For good reason, Bleiler and Jacobellis will be among the most visible faces of the Games, which likely will be the most lucrative event in NBC's history. Thanks in part to these two, little girls soon will be performing McTwists and method airs into couch cushions, instead of axels and Salchows. Both women are well-spoken and professional, masters of the complete sentence and thoughtful answer. They wear pants that fit, bear no visible tattoos, and yes, they care that you noticed.
Off snow, as it happens, Bleiler and Jacobellis have little in common. Bleiler grew up in Aspen and during the summer lives with boyfriend Chris Hottel in San Clemente, Calif., where she surfs every day. Jacobellis grew up in Connecticut, graduated in 2003 from the Stratton Mountain School and spends free time with her family. Still, they are joined at the wallet like no riders before them, locked in a group hug with corporate America. Both have ventured beyond action sports sponsors and into the mainstream, where every accountant, soccer mom and TV exec (and their kids) can see them for what (cream-of-the-crop snowboarders) and who (all-American girls) they are.
Snowboarding wasn't always so perfectly wrapped for the Olympics. When the sport made its debut at Nagano in 1998, Norwegian Terje Haakonsen, one of the world's most revered riders, refused to compete and compared the IOC to the Mafia. Later, Canadian giant slalom winner Ross Rebagliati had his gold medal taken away (and given back) after he tested positive for marijuana. Riders who competed under the five-ring banner were dubbed sellouts and IOC lapdogs by peers.
By the 2002 Olympics, attitudes had changed. The Games were held in Salt Lake City, on American snow, just five months after Sept. 11. The first U.S. gold medal was won by Vermont's Kelly Clark, and suddenly America found itself wrapping its patriotism around a (gasp!) snowboarder. By the time Ross Powers, Danny Kass and JJ Thomas swept the men's event the next day, snowboarding had become the coolest game of the Games.
Even the sport's core came around. Sure, the three men's medalists were criticized for appearing in a TV commercial for Nestea. But that was expected. "There's always been an aversion to commercialization, whether justified or not," says Peter Carlisle, director of Olympic and action sports at Octagon, the sports marketing company. "But the irony is that many of the riders who criticized that ad then sought out those kinds of deals." Today, companies like Burton Snowboards boast partnerships with the likes of Volvo, which sponsors the Burton-owned U.S. Open, and Motorola, which provides technology for Bluetooth coats and helmets. And Bleiler and Jacobellis have become transcendent, maneuvering between the endemic and mainstream worlds, at ease in both.
If you watch football or The OC, or have turned on NBC in the past two months, you've met Lindsey Jacobellis via her Visa spots. Also in the works are commercials for Dunkin' Donuts and Kellogg's, and a Paul Mitchell print ad. If all goes according to plan, Jacobellis soon will break into the beauty market, endorsing face washes and cosmetics. And someday she hopes to be a voice in a Disney cartoon. "I want to be remembered for being diverse," she says. "I'm not just a hardcore athlete. I'm a girly-girl, too."
In the halfpipe, the girly-girl is revealed when a gold glitter belt peeks out from beneath a pink-and-black plaid jacket. But there's nothing girly about Lindsey the Snowboard Cross racer, and the toughness behind her beauty is a big part of her appeal. At the X Games in Aspen last winter, Jacobellis needed all the grit she could muster. Before her semifinal heat, she gathered with the other racers at the starting gate, where she could watch older brother Ben take off in his heat. Shortly after the six riders disappeared around a bend on the 2,170-foot course, word shot up the mountain that Ben had crashed at about 35 mph, his head slamming into the densely packed snow when he fell. "At that kind of speed, contact is death," says Bud Keene, a U.S. snowboard coach. Jacobellis certainly knew the risks of her sport. She had been in Chile four months earlier when world champion Line Ostvold died of head injuries suffered in a crash during practice for a World Cup race.
When she slid into the starting gate for her race, Jacobellis knew little of her brother's fate, only that he was being taken by ambulance to a hospital. She did know that Ben was stubborn and would not want her to quit, recalling that when they rode together at Stratton Mountain, Ben would bristle when she asked if he was okay after a fall. Jacobellis won her heat, and later learned that Ben had escaped with a concussion. In the final a few hours later, she edged Canadian Erin Simmons for the gold.
Jacobellis is used to being dominant. "Lindsey grew up riding with guys," says Keene. "She got used to taking a much faster path than most women. There is no one who can challenge her."
Except in the halfpipe, on Bleiler's turf. Whereas Jacobellis spends part of her snow time training to ride fast, Bleiler spends all of her time drilling tricks in the pipe. "Gretchen has a very complete arsenal," Keene says. "And she does them big." Bleiler developed her snowboarding chops chasing her brothers down the steeps at Aspen. She joined the national team straight out of high school, then tied for the final spot on the 2002 Olympic team but lost a trip to Salt Lake in a tiebreaker. After dominating pipe in 2002 and 2003, she joined a new team called The Collection in 2004. Conceived by Olympic champ Powers, the team consists of just six riders: Powers, Bleiler, Clark, Andy Finch, Luke Mitrani and Mason Aguirre. "It's ours," Bleiler says. "We make our own decisions. We decide everything, from the sweatshirts we wear to the sponsors we have to the contests we go to."
The Collection provides riders with a coach, physical therapist and marketing director, plus training trips (New Zealand last summer) and a tricked-out RV that follows the team to contests and warms the riders' toes between runs. The team concept, new to action sports, has attracted sponsors such as Snickers, Nickelodeon and Yamaha, which are desperate to reach a young demo hot for snowboarders, skaters and surfers the way their fathers were crazy about Dr. J or John Elway.
Bleiler's poster-girl image is a hit on all fronts. She'll have a cameo on NBC's Las Vegas and a 24 Hour Fitness commercial in January. In February, she'll grace the cover of Men's Fitness. She's already posed wearing nothing but body paint for the cover of FHM (February 2004) and sat on the edge of a hot tub wearing nothing at all in ESPN The Magazine (Jan. 19, 2004). "I'm glad I did it," she says, "but I don't think I'd do it again."
While the IOC is loath to admit that adding snowboarding to the Olympicroster was a ploy to lure the young-U.S. kids just don't relate to ice dancing and biathlon-the numbers speak for themselves. Following the snowboard-fueled 2002 Olympics, NBC reported a 23% increase in ratings among 18-to-34-year-olds, and the network has already sold more than $800 million in ads for the 2006 Games. "Snowboarding is followed by kids, and the Olympics only increase that interest," says NBC exec Mike McCarley.
Lately, everything about snowboarding is big, including the crowd at Breckenridge that braved a minus-3* temperature and brutal winds of the sort that prompted locals to dub the mountain Breckenfridge. Hundreds of down- and fleece-clad fans lined the pipe, goggles down, face masks up, their boards parked in the snow as they leaned over the dashers displaying banners for Yahoo! and Chevy. In the pipe, riders warmed up for their final run.
Gretchen Bleiler slid to a stop after a smooth Crippler, slung her board over her back and began the trudge back to the top of the halfpipe. Lindsey Jacobellis finished with a high straight air, then followed Bleiler up the hill. The wind kicked up, and the two paused and bowed their heads into the blowing snow, their breath clouding in front of them, shallow and fast at 10,000 feet. After finishing second here, Bleiler would go on to win the next Grand Prix three days later, gaining a virtual lock on an Olympic spot. Jacobellis' final-run fall would knock her out of the second event; she'll need a strong ride at one of three remaining trials to earn a halfpipe slot.
But the image that's frozen in the moment is this one, of Bleiler and Jacobellis walking the halfpipe, carrying boards. The U.S. flag flying overhead reminds all that there's more at stake than making the U.S. team. In play is the Olympic image, and what's increasingly clear is that the Olympic winter icon of the future will likely have a snowboard strapped to her feet.