Gretchen Bleiler put the finishing touches on her illustrious snowboarding career at the Winter X Games right where it started — in her hometown of Aspen.
Bleiler, a trailblazer in the world of women’s halfpipe riding, soaked up the adulation of the huge crowd at Buttermilk on Saturday night as she closed the book on a record-setting career under the brilliant X Games spotlight.
The popular Aspen rider didn’t win her final event. But that didn’t matter to the adoring crowd that acknowledged her accomplishments with an extended ovation after her third and final run Saturday night.
Kelly Cark, the reigning queen of the superpipe and a longtime colleague of Bleiler’s, vaulted herself to the top of the eight-woman field in the Saturday-night finals. She won her fourth consecutive gold at Aspen Winter X and her 12th Winter X Games medal — a record.
Clark’s aggressive but smooth style included huge amplitude out of the superpipe with the decks lined with hundreds of fans.
She vaulted herself more than 15 feet above the pipe as she put together a seemingly flawless opening run of 95.00 that held up through all three rounds.
Second place went to California teenager Chloe Kim, a precocious 13-year-old who scored a 94.33 in her final run to win Winter X silver. Kim, a rising star in women’s snowboarding from Torrance, Calif., scored a 93.00 in her very first run ever in the Buttermilk pipe.
Kaitlyn Farrington, a U.S. Olympian from Sun Valley, Idaho, won the bronze medal with a 94.00.
While the medalists celebrated, a smiling and relieved Bleiler celebrated, too. She finished sixth with a high score of 85.00.
“Of course, it would have been nice to have a fairy-tale ending and win this event, but this is life,” Bleiler said in an interview with The Aspen Times. “I did the best I could.”
The roar of the crowd on her final run down the Buttermilk superpipe is something she will never forget, she said.
“It just felt good to enjoy (the last run) and listen to the crowd. It meant so much,” said Bleiler, who revolutionized women’s halfpipe riding by introducing the inverted element.
“I’m so lucky to come here every year and be the hometown girl,” she said. “These (X Games) cheers have elevated me to a level I thought I would never get to. I am so grateful for that.”
Her final competition was even more rewarding because of the difficult season she’s endured, Bleiler said.
“It’s been a tough season for me. It’s been so tough coming back from my injury,” she said of her horrific training accident on a trampoline in Park City, Utah, more than a year ago.
“It’s been really humbling. But the fact that I hung in there and did the best I could, that was a really good thing for me,” Bleiler said behind her infectious smile. “There were definitely times I wanted to quit.”
But she didn’t.
Rather, she overcame a shattered eye socket, a broken nose and a major concussion from the trampoline crash when her knee slammed into her face while practicing a double backflip.
Steadily, she worked her way back, inspired in part by Clark, the winner of Saturday’s event.
“I don’t think I would have competed as long as I did without her,” Bleiler said. “We were each other’s constant competitors, yet she’s one of my best friends. We both became so much better because of each other.”
“Gretchen is one of the best snowboarders I’ve ever met. She holds herself to such a high level of excellence,” said Clark, who is no stranger to snowboard excellence.
“She a role model and an inspiration for me personally,” Clark said.
For her part, Bleiler said her comeback from serious injury added perspective to her decorated career.
“It’s not always about winning. It’s about doing the best you can,” she said. “I feel like I did that.”
Bleiler, who started snowboarding at age 11, soon after moving to Aspen, began competing at age 15. A soccer standout as a youngster with a clear future as a college soccer player, Bleiler opted for pro snowboarding instead — starting in 1996.
The Aspen rider is a four-time Winter X Games gold medalist and a silver medalist from the Olympics in Turin, Italy, in 2006. She also competed in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. And she just missed Olympic bids in 2002 and again this year.
Bleiler, who has branched out into snowboard and outerwear design, won Winter Dew Tour titles in 2008 at Breckenridge and 2009 at Mount Snow, Vt.
“The first time I won the X Games in 2003 was a turning point in my career,” a grateful Bleiler said. “And in 2010, winning the X Games was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had on a snowboard.”
Clark said that she and her coach were emotional at the top of the superpipe Saturday night when they watched Bleiler drop into the Buttermilk halfpipe for the last time.
“I’m going to miss that,” Clark said in the ultimate compliment to her fellow competitor and friend.
Men’s snowboard slopestyle
An international field dominated the earlier events Saturday at Aspen Winter X.
In the men’s snowboard slopestyle final, the eight competitors included four from Norway, three from Canada and one from the United States — Chas Guldemond, of Truckee, Calif.
Max Parrot, the Canadian who won gold in the snowboard big air Friday night, won another gold medal with a victory in snowboard slopestyle.
The 19-year-old from Quebec executed the first back-to-back triple corks in competition to win the sun-soaked Saturday-afternoon final. He produced a score of 96.33 from the judging panel.
Mark McMorris, a 20-year-old fellow Canadian from Saskatchewan, won silver in the event, giving Canada a 1-2 sweep.
Stale Sandbech, of Norway, won the bronze medal. Sandbech, 20, also won bronze late Friday night in the snowboard big air event.
“This year, I really wanted a gold in slopestyle,” Parrot said, adding that he has been working hard for two years to reach a level of expertise in the event.
Now that he’s at that level, he said, he’s able to push the sport.
“I’ve been training like a dog. … It’s a lot of work,” he said in his lilting French-Canadian accent.
“Norway and Canada have been throwing down, for sure,” said bronze medalist Sandbech, part of the powerhouse Norwegian team.
Canada and Norway are expected to battle for Olympic medals in Sochi, Russia, next month.
Women’s snowboard slopestyle
An American broke the international medal hold in the women’s snowboard slopestyle Saturday afternoon.
Jamie Anderson, of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., jumped to the top of the eight-rider field with a dazzling 95.66 in the first of three runs. She was the only American in the final eight.
Her lead held up until the final run, when Norway’s Silje Norendal edged past her with a 96.00 to win the Winter X Games gold.
Anderson won the silver.
Canadian Spencer O’Brien, who is from British Columbia, finished third and won the bronze.
Snowmobile long jump
Levi LaVallee is the king of the snowmobile long jump.
The defending Winter X Games gold medalist in the snowmobile freestyle and snowmobile speed/style event won gold Saturday evening in the long jump, which returned to the games for the first time since 2010.
The competitors traveled from a steel takeoff ramp over a 75-foot gap onto a snow landing.
LaVallee, who is from Longville, Minn., executed a jump that measured 147 feet, 5 inches, to beat silver medalist Cory Davis. Davis went 142-11 for the silver.
LaVallee is the only rider to compete in all seven different Winter X Games snowmobile disciplines.
Crowd favorite Colten Moore, from Krum, Texas, won the bronze. Moore won the snowmobile freestyle Thursday night, giving him a gold and a bronze in 2014.
Moore’s brother Caleb suffered fatal injuries one year ago in a snowmobile crash during the 2013 Winter X Games at Buttermilk.