Gretchen Bleiler can tell you that a lot can happen in a split second. In a second, you can be flying high in the air (literally), only to be pulled back down to earth hard and in the most gruesome of ways. In a split second, everything can change.
As far as nearly career-ending accidents go, Gretchen Bleiler's was a doozy. In an attempt to complete a double backflip move on a practice trampoline, the seasoned snowboarding veteran and three-time Olympian over-rotated, sending her knee flying into her face. Almost before anyone could draw their breath, Bleiler was being whisked away in an ambulance to treat a shattered eye socket, broken nose, vertigo, and a split eyebrow. Oh, and a concussion.
The accident had far-reaching consequences: In addition to a year-long recovery process, Bleiler still suffers double vision to this day—something the doctors admit she may never fully recover from.
While Gretchen says it took her about a year to feel fully comfortable on a snowboard again, and that there was a brief moment she considered hanging up her boots and bidding goodbye to the sport forever, the moment passed very quickly, she told SHAPE. The real issue? Reconciling with her new perspective on life and sports.
“I was told I might have double vision for the rest of my life, and for me as an athlete, that just didn’t make any sense,” she says. “I was used to working hard and accomplishing my goals, and it just seemed crazy to me that there was nothing that I could do to fix this situation.”
Bleiler became even more frustrated her first few times back on the mountain. “I just kept saying, ‘OK, my vision is back, I should be able to pick up where I left off,’ and that wasn’t the case.”
The more Bleiler fought to regain her strength and skills, the clearer it became that she had to step back and assess the situation differently.
But ultimately, her injury taught her to be “humble,” she says. “This accident was a huge setback—it took me back to zero,” she says. “I was riding at a really high level right before the accident. Now, I’m like, ‘OK, this is a clean slate. I’m starting over.’ I know what I’m capable of, but I can’t compare myself to who I was before.”
Although Gretchen may see herself as starting over, others view her as back in the game: Bleiler finished 3rd in the halfpipe in the New Zealand winter games, and most consider her a strong contender for one of the four positions on the female U.S. Olympic Snowboarding Team.
Regardless of whether Bleiler wins Olympic gold this year or makes the trek to Russia at all, the superstar snowboarder is confident that this isn’t the end.
“I’m going to keep doing this because I love it,” she says. “There’s so much more I want to give to the sport.” —Alanna Nuñez