VAIL - It's been a different kind of winter for professional snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler.
Last summer, Bleiler was training on a trampoline in Park City, Utah, and over-rotated a double backflip that sprung her knee into her face.
She shattered her right eye socket, broke her nose, split open her eyebrow and, to top it off, suffered a concussion.
Needless to say, Bleiler hadn't competed since her injuries until just two weeks ago at the Olympic test event in Sochi, Russia. She had intended for her first post-injury competition to be the X Games - an event in which she has five medals, including four golds - in her hometown of Aspen, but she backed out of that event just a day before the games began.
The Vail Daily caught up with Bleiler Tuesday afternoon at the base of Golden Peak and the Olympic silver medalist said she's finally feeling good again.
"It's definitely taken way longer to kind of get back from this accident than I ever anticipated," Bleiler said. "First of all, the major victory is having my vision back - that's bigger and better than anything."
Bleiler had reconstructive surgery on her eye socket. After that, she experienced double vision and was worried she'd never be able to see properly again.
But her vision was just one of many hurdles. Once her vision felt right again, she faced her own confidence level.
"Just getting back - I think because it was such a traumatic accident - getting back my confidence and just being able to ride at the level I ride has been more of a challenge," Bleiler said. "So it's been really frustrating and kind of a bumpy road."
Bleiler finished 16th in Sochi - not exactly where she wants to finish in any event, but at least she's competing again, she said.
"I think that was a really good lesson I learned - because I'm such a competitor - that when I put myself in those positions, I automatically raise my level," Bleiler said. "And I've always been that way, but ... this year I didn't know if I should just be riding to get my level back and then compete when I was ready, but I guess in Sochi I realized that I just need to start competing again and be humble about it and know that, 'OK, I'm not at my best right now, but I'm close.'"
So that's how Bleiler's approaching the halfpipe competition in Vail this week. She said she knows she's riding at her B-game right now, so she wants to go out there and do the best B-game she can do.
"My goal is just to push myself and push my riding with where that is right now, and I think it's going to happen," Bleiler said. "I think this is one of the best halfpipes of the year here, which feels really good. I had a really fun day yesterday, like probably the best day of the season for me. I was just feeling really good, on my game, pushing it more than I have, and having a lot of fun, too."
Having fun is part of the sport, Bleiler said. She loves that she can ride down the Vail terrain park on her way to the pipe, hitting jumps, rails and slashers along the way to get pumped up.
When she returned to Aspen from an Oakley photo shoot in Washington following the Sochi test event, she planned on getting more halfpipe training in than she did.
"But it snowed every day, which you can't complain about when you're a snowboarder, so I just rode powder and free-rode around, so I didn't get my halfpipe training in which I was expecting," Bleiler said. "But sometimes that's good, too - it's good to just push yourself in other areas and free ride around, and it tends to help with everything."
Bleiler hopes to land a spot on her third Olympic team in the next year. She's happy with her decision to compete in the Sochi test event because she said she got the lay of the land. She was impressed with the halfpipe, but has some concerns about the climate in Sochi, which isn't far from the Black Sea, and thus lacks significant elevation. The warm weather prevented the slopestyle test event from happening, so Bleiler just hopes the International Olympic Committee is over-prepared next year in case warmer temperatures happen again.
As for being back in Colorado for another major competition, Bleiler couldn't be happier.
"I know a lot of people are feeling mixed emotions about having (the Burton U.S. Open) here but I think it's really going to be for the best for the riding," she said. "You're really going to see some good riding. ... I love riding in Colorado - The Dew Tour in Breck, now the Open here, the X Games in Aspen - if we could just ride all winter in Colorado, I wouldn't be bummed about that."
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.