Gretchen Bleiler back in the game
PARK CITY, Utah -- The question was never whether or not Gretchen Bleiler would ever be able to snowboard again. It was if she'd ever be able to see.
In June 2012, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist was practicing a double backflip on a trampoline at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's Center of Excellence when she over-rotated and kneed herself in the face. The impact smashed her right eye socket, broke her nose, gave her a concussion and vertigo and forever changed the way she saw the world.
"I had never experienced anything at that level," she said. "I was feeling around in the dark."
After surgery to repair the socket and going through a series of vision exercises, her headaches finally subsided and her vision returned in December. She anxiously returned to the hill eager to pick up her snowboarding exactly where it left off. But she wasn't ready. And a woman whose answer to any problem was always to work harder had to accept the fact that she couldn't do that.
"The harder I worked, the harder it was," she said. "I had to get to a point where it wasn't about hitting my head against the wall trying to do more. It was about just letting it come. Now I'm just grateful that I have my vision back and I'm back on a snowboard because some people thought that wasn't even going to be possible. I've learned to just let the fun come."
Everything finally came together this past August, when Bleiler returned to the podium for the first time in two seasons, finishing third in the halfpipe at the New Zealand Winter Games. Her close friend Kelly Clark finished first.
"She's my hero seeing what she's been through," Clark said. "It's inspirational, to say the absolutely least. I think her biggest fear was the assumption that the sport might progress without her, and I think this summer she put a stop to those thoughts. She hasn't gone anywhere."
Which is why the spotlight is again on the 31-year-old Bleiler as one of a handful of American women with a legitimate chance of making the four-member U.S. team that will head to Sochi. At the Olympic media summit this week, Bleiler was one of six female snowboarders who met the media. Two of them won't make the Sochi team.
She still has lingering issues with her sight -- when Bleiler looks up she still has double vision. But through continuing eye exercises, she is hopeful it won't be permanent. She is heading to New Zealand again on Oct. 6 to continue her preparations for the upcoming season.
"As I've recovered what I've realized is the reason I still snowboard is that I'm the type of person that loves to go deep, learn and push myself physically, mentally and emotionally. Snowboarding has been that vehicle for me for the last 20 years. When I win, I'm happy. When I lose I'm also happy. I'm grateful for this life I have to live. It's a great life."