In an ambulance with her face badly bleeding after a trick went horribly wrong in training, Gretchen Bleiler blurted this out: Snowboarding wasn’t worth it.
Of course, that was just the pain speaking.
Seven months ago, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist was practicing a double backflip maneuver on a trampoline in Park City, when she over-rotated, sending her knee bouncing off the springy surface and into her face.
Bleiler shattered her right eye socket, broke her nose, split open her eyebrow and suffered a serious concussion.
Now, after surgery to repair the eye socket, dealing with double vision and headaches so severe she felt like she was constantly in a wave pool, Bleiler has a different take: There’s no way she could ever give up snowboarding.
And, of course, that’s the competitor talking.
“It was a terrible experience,” said the 31-year-old Bleiler, who’s from Aspen, Colo. “Now that I’m back, I have a new perspective. I’m just letting myself have fun, let everything come back when it comes back. That’s where I’m at mentally with everything.”
Bleiler plans to compete in the halfpipe next week at the Winter X Games in her hometown, her first event since the accident.
Nervous? Not really. She won’t go overboard with any outlandish tricks as she attempts to capture a fifth gold medal.
That said, Bleiler reserves the right to change her mind at the last minute. Returns like this simply take time and there’s no sense rushing into anything, especially with the Sochi Olympics just a year away.
“From any traumatic injury, you’re going to experience a lack of confidence,” Bleiler said. “There’s a whole process you have to go through to break free of that.”
Each day, Bleiler begins with a series of stretching exercises.
Not knee bends, toe touches or stomach crunches, either.
No, she simply looks up and back down without moving her head. She bulges her eyes out and closes them tight. She pulls and tugs on her eyelids.
Then, she repeats the routine over and over.
Hopefully, these stretches will someday alleviate Bleiler’s double vision. Although, doctors have been up front with her and said it may never fully go away.
In late June, she was at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s “Center of Excellence” working on a double backflip routine with the help of a trampoline. It was safer that way because, really, what could go wrong on a trampoline, right?
After landing several attempts the day before, she was feeling quite confident.
On this particular go-around, she landed right in the middle of the maneuver, “which is something you never want to do,” she said.
Her knee flew up and caught her in the face, shattering her eye socket so severely that there was basically nothing holding it in place. Her eye sank down in her head, she said.
Paramedics rushed her from Park City to Salt Lake City for treatment.
“I was bleeding everywhere and throwing up,” she recounted. “At one point I was like, ‘This is definitely not worth it.’”
The action sports world has recently seen its share of frightful training accidents, like the death of freeskier Sarah Burke a year ago in a halfpipe. That brought back many of the painful memories of when Kevin Pearce’s career ended in a fall on Dec. 31, 2009, at the same Utah halfpipe where Burke sustained her fatal injuries.
And now Bleiler on a trampoline.
Worth the risk?
“You can’t think about the worst-case scenario, because it takes all the fun away,” Bleiler said. “You have to give the sport its proper respect and know risks are there. But then you transfer it out of mind and just live in the moment.”
A few days after the accident, Bleiler was flown to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for surgery, where doctors inserted a titanium bridge to stabilize her eye.
Then, she waited.
“No one really knew when I would get better,” said Bleiler, who had her family and husband by her side. “Or even if I would get better.”
Steadily, her eye mended. So did her head from the concussion.
For six weeks, she couldn’t do anything.
“Because getting my heart-rate up caused the concussion to kick in,” she said.
Cleared by her doctor in October, Bleiler traveled to New Zealand to take a few training runs in the halfpipe. No major air or anything, just to get the feel back.
But when she dropped in, she immediately felt disoriented. With different perceptions in each eye, she had difficulty adjusting.
“I was like, ‘Oh no, am I ever going to ridge the halfpipe again?’” Bleiler said. “I was so far from being all right. But that was also a kick in the pants. I needed to do something actively to make this happen.”
So, she began working with Brad Jones, a physical therapist based in Carlsbad, Calif. He came up with exercises that would strengthen her eye by putting it in uncomfortable situations. For instance, Jones would have Bleiler jump around, then flash cards with small letters at her from different angles, just to retrain the damaged eye to instantly react.
“We were hoping this would ease the transition back to snowboarding,” Jones said. “You could see eye the responding to what we were doing.”
Pearce, who also works with Jones, played a role, too, by giving Bleiler all sorts of support, since he dealt with double vision from his accident.
“Things like this aren’t easy, but she wanted to come back and wanted to continue to snowboard and has worked so hard,” said Pearce, who will serve as a snowboard analyst at Winter X. “She’s doing great.”
Last month, Bleiler re-entered the halfpipe again, just to see if the eye exercises were working.
“My first run in the halfpipe was so good, so much better,” Bleiler said. “I’m indebted to Brad. I don’t think I’d be riding the halfpipe if it weren’t for his creativity.”
As for her double vision, well, it’s gradually improving.
“If I just look straight up, I’ll have double vision. If I look straight down, I’ll have double vision,” she said. “But my range is so much better that it’s not an issue in the halfpipe. Luckily for me, even though I have it, I can adjust my head to make it go away.
“This is still a bit of a life-changer — a freak accident that changed everything. But I’m happy to be feeling better again and healthy and just be back on my snowboard.”