ASPEN ” When asked about her outfit Friday night, Gretchen Bleiler replied, “I just didn’t want anyone to miss me.”
Not a chance.
Wearing a megawatt yellow jacket and pants ensemble that she called her “banana suit,” the 26-year-old local won the gold medal to match ” her third in six years ” in what was a bananas Winter X women’s superpipe final at chilly Buttermilk.
Bronze medalist Kelly Clark of Mount Snow, Vt., nearly landed the first 1080 ever in a women’s halfpipe competition to steal the early lead. Defending champion and silver medalist Torah Bright of Australia again showed off her technical prowess, throwing a massive Mctwist (backside inverted 540) followed by a switch backside 720 on her final run to bump Clark.
None of it could top an elegant 92.66-point second run from the current ESPN The Magazine cover girl.
There was the massive frontside 900 to start, then the signature inverted 540 crippler followed by a closing combination of 720s. All were stomped with diamond-sharp precision ” sending Clark and Bright back to the top of the pipe to try and do better.
“I’ve been working really, really hard the last two weeks, just working on my Cab [switch frontside] sevens and my amplitude and grabbing my nines,” Bleiler said of a run that she labeled “as close” to perfection as she’s ever come. “It’s nice to have it all come together tonight.”
Clark fell near the beginning of her final run, and was left hoping her first-run score of 90 would hold up for silver.
Bright made sure it didn’t with a 91.66 final run that likely would have made Bleiler go back to work if not for a tiny hand drag on a huge 720.
All three medalists said the new three-run, six rider format made for the perfect setting for a game of one-upmanship.
“You have more of a chance to step up and push it,” Bright said. “That way we’re all pushing ourselves and the sport at the same time, and I think tonight we saw that. I think it’s really cool.”
“A good night for women’s snowboarding,” Bleiler added. “The level was pretty off the hook I would say.”
Of the six riders in the final, four had won the event since 2003. Fourth-place finisher Hannah Teter (77.33) was the only former gold medalist to not end up on the podium. Thirty-three-year-old Japanese rider Soko Yamaoko finished fourth (70.66) and 16-year-old Lizzy Beerman of Weston, Vt., rounded out the top five.
Bleiler won her first superpipe title in 2003, her second in 2005. Since that first gold, no rider has been able to repeat in the event, a fact Clark attributed to the rapid progression of the sport.
“People are riding better and better,” she said. “I don’t think we look at it as defending it, I think we’re trying to inspire people to be better snowboarders. So whoever does that, it’s one of these girls.”
After winning another gold medal in front of her hometown fans, Bleiler is looking forward to getting away from the rigorous competition circuit she’s traveled in recent years.
Her next stop is Las Vegas to show off her signature Oakley line of clothes ” banana suit included ” and will also do backcountry film and photo shoots in Japan, Russia and Canada.
In between, she’ll compete in one Grand Prix in Tamarack, Idaho, and the U.S. Open in Vermont.
But not before taking a little time to soak in her latest ” and, as she put it, greatest ” triumph in front of her army of hometown fans.
“Definitely my best ever,” she said.
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