In two weeks, snowboard star Gretchen Bleiler will open her season at the X Games in her hometown of Aspen – just six months after shattering her eye socket in a trampoline accident. It will be her first halfpipe competition since the “orbital blowout” that left her with extreme vertigo, double vision, and fearing the worst.
But this week, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist is at Copper Mountain, training and supporting her fellow riders at a Grand Prix event. Between practice sessions, Bleiler gave a full account of the accident, the horror, the rehab, tricks she’s working on for Sochi, the challenges of an Olympic halfpipe-slopestyle double, and what she learned in Vancouver.
Bleiler competes in the ladies halfpipe final during the 2011 Sprint U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix on March 5, 2011 in Mammoth Lakes, California.
First, the eye injury. What happened?
It was June 26. I was in Park City, Utah, jumping on the trampoline at the Center of Excellence. I’d gone there to work on double back flips. I just wanted to get more efficient with them. I was warming up, doing a pretty big [one-and-a-quarter] back flip and over-rotated. I landed with my knee in my face. I shattered my right eye socket, split open my eyebrow – it was bleeding everywhere – broke my nose, and gave myself a pretty bad concussion.
The floor of my eye socket and part closest to my nose were in so many pieces that I had to take an ambulance to Salt Lake City. They fixed the eyebrow right away. I split it in half, horizontally, so there was eyebrow above and below the cut. It was looking a little Frankenstein-ish.
When you shatter your eye socket, they call it an ‘orbital wall blowout’ and there is nothing holding your eye in place so my eye sunk back and down in my head. Opening both eyes was the worst. They weren’t aligned so it was like seeing two pictures at once.
I had to wait a week to do my surgery. I stayed in the Salt Lake hospital two or three days. The rest of the week, I laid in bed in a dark room with my eyes closed.
Did you wear an eye patch?
They gave me glasses, but they didn’t really work. The problem was when I’d open my eye. So I made this makeshift pirate thing where I rolled up a t-shirt and put it diagonally across my face covering the right eye. I looked like a gypsy but it was comfortable.
When was the surgery?
July 2 at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and the night we flew in, a huge storm took power out of all of Virginia and Washington, D.C., for about a week.
Travelling was probably the worst thing I could have done because the concussion was worse than I knew. I was in so much discomfort. I didn’t know if it was the eye or the head [causing it].
In fact, the three worst parts of this whole experience were: the accident itself, flying to D.C., and waking up the next day with the worst vertigo I’d ever experienced. I was really worried. We called the Salt Lake doctors. One said, I don’t think this is the case and I don’t want to scare you but it might have been possible that the accident made a tiny tear in one of the arteries in my brain and that’s why I was getting vertigo. He said that could lead to a stroke. So we went to an emergency room. It was the worst day of my life. I thought that, at 31 years old, I was possibly going to have a stroke.
I had to go through the crazy MRIs and MRAs. It was about a 10-hour day. After all this, I found out that I was fine. Once I got the news, I’m like: I can handle anything from here on. Bring on the surgery!
Once I had the surgery, I immediately started feeling better. They built a titanium bridge where the eye socket once was. They realigned my eyeball. They fixed my nose. They did the whole surgery through my lower eyelid. They put an antenna on my head and did the surgery with 3-D imaging, with this tiny little machine going through my lower eyelid. There were no incisions on my face – which is pretty amazing. Visually, everything healed really, really quickly. I hadn’t worn glasses in the past and I don’t wear them now.
What about concussions? How many have you had?
A handful. Unfortunately, they’re starting to add up. I had a concussion in March  that took me out of the competition season early. I think that’s why this concussion was worse.
When did you get back on snow?
I went to New Zealand in October. It did not go well. I still had a really low range of motion in my injured eye. In a halfpipe, you’re looking up at a 22-foot wall and you’re going at it with a lot of speed. Everyday life was fine, but I had double vision in the pipe the whole time. That was pretty scary. I rode about four days.
Right after that trip, I started working really closely with my physical therapist/trainer, Brad Jones. Honestly, he is the reason I’m snowboarding right now without double vision. I started working with him in 2004-05, so he knew what I had to do to succeed in halfpipe and where I need to look before my tricks. In the gym, he’d be constantly challenging my eyes while I was challenging my body. Whether it was squats, split squats, or agility exercises – as I was doing these things, he would have me look at a target higher up in my range and have me look down at the same time. I was back on snow at the beginning of December and the progress was amazing. Compared to October, it was night and day. The very first run in the halfpipe, I was fine. So I rode a few days [at Copper Mountain], went back to California, packed my stuff for the winter, then drove back to Colorado and have been here ever since.
Are you planning to compete a full season?
Yes. I’ll be at the X Games in Aspen [Jan. 24-27]… the Park City Grand Prix [Jan. 28- Feb. 2]… the Burton European Open in Switzerland [Feb. 4-9]… the Sochi Olympic test event [Feb. 13-14]…The U.S. Open [Feb. 28- Mar. 2]. It’s in Vail, which is a big change because it’s been in Vermont [for 30 years]. I’m happy because I like riding in Colorado, but the pipe is on a really steep pitch next to the slopestyle course so we’ll see…Then the European X Games in Tignes, France [Mar. 20-22].
Slopestyle will make its Olympic debut in 2014. Shaun White, for one, said he wants to compete in both halfpipe and slope in Sochi. Did the Olympic double ever cross your mind?
I’ve always loved slopestyle. I used to dabble in it, and I continue to hit jumps. It’s just not in the cards for me. And now that people are specializing, it’s really tough to be the best at both. On the women’s side, Torah Bright [of Australia] might actually be the only one with a good chance.
Are you working on any new tricks? Will women need a 1080 to win gold in Sochi?
Yes, it will be really important to have the 1080 in Sochi. For me, it’s not just about getting to that 1080, but also about changing the entire look, feel, and style of my run. For the past two years, I’ve been reinventing how I spin. Everyone used to spin flat. Then the guys started “corking” their spins off axis. It’s way more efficient. It looks better, and you’re going with the natural direction of the pipe. So I’ve been working on my frontside cork spin, so: front cork 7s, front cork 9s and eventually, hopefully, a front cork 1080 which I think I would have had this summer if I didn’t have this little setback. That was the goal. Also, it’s about style. So I’ve really been working on cleaning it up, making it more compact, more fluid.
Sochi would be your third Olympics. In Torino, in 2006, you took silver behind teammate Hannah Teter. In Vancouver, you were putting together a great run – similar to the one that earned gold at the X Games a few weeks earlier – but fell on your last hit and placed 11th. What, if anything, did Vancouver teach you?
It was bittersweet. I was so close to having that run that I knew I could have. Fortunately and unfortunately, I feel like I peaked a bit early. I won the X Games with the best run in my entire career, went into Vancouver and almost had it.
[Compared to Torino], Vancouver was totally different. It was a night event, and the conditions were very, very challenging. It was warm and the halfpipe was sort of falling apart, so five days of practice [became] two days of practice and there were literally holes, chunks of the wall falling out. I don’t think you can compare any Olympic experiences because they are all going to be different. Not every one is going to be this perfect fairy tale that I had in Italy.
Lastly, as one of the most marketable and marketed female riders, did you do any cool non-snowboarding things in the off-season? Any more magazine covers or judging Cupcake Wars?
I did a lot of nothing – which I hadn’t done in a really, really, really long time. I think I needed it. Sometimes little experiences that tell you that and, if you don’t listen, life knocks a littler harder. I got knocked pretty hard because I wasn’t listening. I had concussion symptoms for about six weeks so I literally couldn’t do anything. I was in Aspen with my husband, our dog, my mom, and stepdad, and once I got better, we took a lot of fun trips into the mountains, just enjoying nature and taking our time. It was really nice. I had summer for the first time in like 12 years.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.