Last year we chatted to the Olympic and X Games medallist, and one of the most famous female shredders on the planet, Gretchen Bleiler about the highs and lows of comps, global warming and whether she regrets that saucy FHM shoot she did at the start of her career
Interview by Sam Haddad, action photos by Cole Barash and Mike Yoshida, lifestyle photos courtesy of Oakley
You spent the early days of your life in Ohio away from the mountains, what were you like as a kid, were you into sports and the outdoors?
I’ve always been sporty, I grew up in Oakwood, a suburb outside of Dayton in Ohio and when I was a kid I was on the swim and diving teams, I played tennis, golf and soccer. In summer I remember spending everyday at the pool with my friends, coming home blind from the chlorine. I have three brothers, two older one younger and I was just the tomboy following them around all the time.
Why did your parents move to Aspen?
My grandparents have had a place in Aspen since the 60s so we would go there during vacations for skiing. When I was ten my parents got a divorce and a year later my Mom decided it was time to move on as Oakwood is a very small town where everyone knew everyone’s business and I think she just wanted a different life for us. At 10 years old it was a tough transition into a world of outdoor education trips, avalanche warnings and skating on frozen lakes but I learnt to love it pretty quickly.
Do you remember getting on a board for the first time?
Every Wednesday during winter we’d get a half-day off to go up on the hill and ski or board or whatever. I was 11 and my bros were snowboarders so I really wanted to try it out, I loved the idea that it was this new deviant thing that wasn’t even considered a sport. That first day I was definitely falling a lot, like violent falls, catching my edge, but that’s what I loved about it, it was this whole new challenge.
Was there much freestyle going down in the early days?
Everything was pretty much natural terrain back then, you’d use whatever hits you could find on the hill. I’d always have a goal when I went riding, I’d go to this one run which had tons of rollers and banks and I’d be like, “ok I’m gonna do a frontside 180 off that bank and then a method off that bank”, all day long I’d just lap that same run all on my own. Then one day I was at Buttermilk and a kid from the Aspen Valley Snowboard team came up to me and was like “we see you riding here all the time and you’re really good, you should join the team so you have someone to ride with.” Haha…
And backcountry riding too?
Oh yeah, just growing up there we were lucky as we would have snow the whole time. On the team it wasn’t like if it was grey we wouldn’t go out. I learnt so much from getting involved with people who had access to snowmobiles who’d take me to the backside to hit jumps. I remember the first time I hit a real backcountry kicker I totally got bucked back and landed on my back, but it was powder so it didn’t matter.
So when did you realise you had a knack for competitions?
The year I joined the Aspen team was the first year I competed, granted there wasn’t a deep field of women at the time but I made the nationals in every discipline. That year I podiumed for the overall award and I knew that snowboarding and competing was the perfect combo for me. When I found out that snowboarding was going to be in the Olympics in 98 that’s when I started specialising a little bit more in half pipe.
I heard you wanted to be in the Olympics even as a kid?
Yeah I always wanted to go to Olympics, being competitive I saw it as the highest level in any sport. Seeing all the athletes at the games and imagining how hard they must have worked to get there, watching them compete on that one day, it made the hair raise on my arms and gave me the chills.
So Turin was your first Olympics, were you confident going into the games?
I had five Olympic qualifiers in the US and I won four out of five of them, so going in I was on a roll and felt confident, and I was being portrayed by the media as the US favourite which I guess was extra pressure. The actual day was amazing and I only have good thoughts about the whole experience. I made it to the finals from qualifiers right away and then in between finals Hannah Teter, Ricky our coach and I just went and rode powder and it was just an awesome day. I landed the best run I could have that day and felt really grateful as was worried I’d be too nervous to enjoy it.
The media had expected you to get gold, did you have to face awkward questions after?
Yeah, there were people asking “are you bummed you didn’t win?” But I can honestly say I woke up the next day and thought “ah it would have been nice to get the gold medal”, but I also honestly didn’t care as I’d accomplished my goal which was to do the best run I could do.
Climate change is a big concern for you, when did you start worrying about it?
Growing up in Aspen, the outdoors always been very important to me and I’ve always been very aware. I guess after the 2006 Olympics it really hit home that I could utilize my position as an Olympian to do something positive. As a snowboarder my entire life revolves around snow, and that really hits home the effects of climate change.
So what steps did you take to start campaigning for more awareness?
I began by talking to media and friends about it, influencing other people, walking the walk, little everyday things. I was able to take things further when Oakley came to me with the idea of a signature collection. I was like, “this is perfect, lets do it, but can we add this environmental aspect to it?” so they started working on how we could use sustainable materials for the collection. Eventually Oakley arrived at a material called Ecostorm and created a jacket and pants made from recycled and recyclable material. Along with that we did some lifestyle bits made of 100 percent organic cotton and water based non-toxic dyes. The idea is to make the collection bigger and bigger each year.
All the research has inspired Oakley to do more throughout the whole range, which is tough as it’s expensive to produce clothes using these new fabrics. I think Oakley realise it’s an important thing to do now and hopefully as more companies jump on board costs will fall and the materials will become accessible to everyone.
You did a pretty saucy shoot for FHM several years back, do you ever worry that that kind of shoot stereotypes women and hinders them getting taken seriously in sports?
I’m glad you asked that question. Yeah I did FHM in 2003 at the beginning of my career, for more exposure and at the time I felt pressure to say yes to opportunities to get myself and the sport out there. FHM was a really tough decision and I think I made that decision for the wrong reasons, I did it as I felt I had to rather then I wanted to. Looking back it makes me feel really lucky to be where I am now as I can choose what I want to do or not do and I would definitely say no now. Like now I want to get attention for the environment so I can be pushing this positive message rather than taking my clothes off again!
I don’t know if I have a general opinion on this, there are some really amazing athletes who have done biknin shoots, but I for me choose not to do it, I think there are better ways to get yourself out there. Alana Blanchard surfs in a Bikini a lot for example, but I don’t think guys care that she’s a good surfer, they just like it that she looks good in a bikini. There are so many other things you can do to get what you want instead of letting them form you and do to you what they want to see, you choose and do what you want! If you want to pose in a bikini because you worked hard on your body, you’re happy about who you are and how you look, then do it by all means! But do it for you and what you want, have a reason why you do it and have meaning behind it.
Back then I just somehow stumbled into it, like many other girls did as well I imagine. I don’t really regret it, it taught me an important lesson I wouldn’t have learnt without this, so in the end I’m glad it happened.
Gretchen is sponsored by Oakley, K2, Aspen Snowmass, Nike and Giro