Busy Bleiler embraces multiple roles
A photographer who wants to capture the true essence of his subject doesn't snap photos while she is posing for his camera. Instead, he shoots the moments in between. For it is in these moments, when she believes his camera is off or its focus is trained elsewhere, that she relaxes into her true self, freed of the pressure of having to manufacture a mood. It is these moments that also enable a writer to tell the story of an athlete like halfpipe snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler.
Because her in-between moments are equally as jam-packed and filled with passion and personality as those she has scheduled for public viewing.
"From the beginning, I committed to seeing how far I could take snowboarding, and that meant on and off the hill," said Bleiler, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist and four-time Winter X Games champ, during a 30-minute drive from Thursday afternoon's snowboard halfpipe press conference in Vancouver to an Oakley fashion show at Grouse Mountain, where she debuted her fall 2010 signature line to a gathering of international media. "Some people choose just to be a snowboarder, but my goal was always to be more than that."
While most athletes in Vancouver are focusing 100 percent of their time and energy on preparing for competition, Bleiler will continuously change hats, from athlete to sport ambassador to fashion designer to corporate spokesperson. Often, each role change means a literal change of hats, from the Polo-issued beret worn by U.S. Olympians to the pageboy cap of a trend-setting fashion designer to the pastel purple beanie she donned for a television interview with the BBC on Thursday night. "I feel like the busier I am, the more productive I am," Bleiler said. "Why slow down just because I'm at the Olympics?"
On Thursday morning, Bleiler awoke in the athletes' village, worked out with her roommate and close friend Kelly Clark, and then ate her first meal in the athletes' lunchroom, where she experienced her first Olympic "celebrity moment." "A guy on the curling team asked me to take a picture with him," Bleiler said with equal parts humility and unmasked excitement. "That never happened to me in Torino."
After a long session of meet and mingle with athletes from around the world -- "I took a photo with Errol Kerr, the only Jamaican athlete. And have you ever met Johnny Weir? He is awesome. He was carrying this amazing purple Balenciaga purse I totally want!" -- Bleiler met her U.S. teammates and drove to the Main Press Center for their only press conference before competing on Feb. 18. There, she fielded the lion's share of questions, which focused on training and competition instead of pot smoking, partying and life off the hill. That's quite a departure from the press conferences of four years ago. "The media is so much more educated about our sport now," Bleiler said. And she has a lot to do with that.
Like Shaun White on the men's side, Bleiler is both a magnet for media attention and acutely aware that the public's opinion of her is also the public's opinion of snowboarding. She knows that what she says and how she acts -- whether the cameras are on or not -- reflects directly back onto herself, her teammates and her sport. That is something few athletes, especially those in the young sport of competitive snowboarding, comprehend. Her awareness of this fact is the reason that while Hannah Teter emerged from Torino with a gold medal, Bleiler emerged as the face, and the voice, of women's snowboarding. It is a role she proudly embraces and a role she played well on Thursday afternoon.
At least, that is, until it was time to hop in the van to Grouse and swap beanies once again. Bleiler would slip effortlessly between personas several more times Thursday night before returning to the athletes' village. She sat fireside while giving a TV interview about her sport, stood on a makeshift outdoor stage in the rain answering questions about her clothing line and then jetted off to an autograph signing and corporate event for sponsor AT&T in downtown Vancouver. "Busiest girl in town," one Oakley employee said as Bleiler distributed a round of goodbye hugs before hopping in the gondola for a ride down the mountain.
Before leaving Grouse, and before all the hugging, Bleiler granted one final television interview to a reporter from the BBC. After listening to Bleiler talk about how far the sport of women's snowboarding has progressed in the four years since the Torino Games and how empowering the sport of snowboarding is for young girls, the reporter asked, "So then, would you consider yourself a feminist?" Yet another hat?
"The word feminist has such a negative connotation," Bleiler said. "Let's just say I'm a woman who likes to push herself and push past boundaries. And of course, look good doing it."