Olympian, activist, and designer, Gretchen Bleiler is anything but typical. Currently residing in Aspen, Colorado, the birthplace of her passion for snowboarding, Bleiler’s non-traditional creativity coupled with her discipline in becoming an Olympic level athlete make her a perfect Joie Sunday Girl. We sat down with Gretchen to hear about how she found success in a male dominant sport, and how snowboarding gave rise to her current passion as an environmental activist. Read on to learn more about this competitive free spirit, you might just get inspired in the process.
Describe your typical Sunday.
I share time between Aspen, Colorado, and Encinitas, California, and I also travel a lot. The one constant in my life is my morning yoga practice — which consists of yoga, pranayama, and meditation. From there, who knows where the day might lead? One of my favorite morning spots in town is Spring Cafe, because of the bright, light, modern, and cozy atmosphere and because they have one of the most insane chai tea lattes. It’s made with their homemade nut milk — it’s creamy and delicious! Aspen’s cobblestone walking mall and taking Kota to play at the dog park are all typical ways I enjoy a beautiful morning. Being out in nature up in the mountains in Aspen is really special and where I feel most connected.
What’s it like living in Aspen?
Aspen is home, but it’s also my favorite place on earth. Who I am today has a lot to do with being surrounded by the incredible power of nature and the community here. We moved to Aspen when I was 10 years old, and immediately, I was whisked away by its beauty. Aspen is home to the most innovative and thought-provoking world-class events, music, art, and restaurants. The people of the community are all influencers and leaders in human potential — from mountaineers to artists, Olympians, actors, musicians, authors, and entrepreneurs. If you want to be stirred and inspired outside of your daily routine and ideas of what’s possible, the Aspen Idea — a philosophy of “mind, body, spirit” — will most definitely be your springboard.
What first got you into snowboarding?
I grew up in a little town called Oakwood outside of Dayton, Ohio. Ever since I was 7 years old, I’d dreamed of becoming an Olympian, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. My family was always very active and athletic, and with three brothers, we were always playing traditional sports. Whatever sport I was participating in, I swam, hit, kicked, and ran as fast and as hard as I could, whenever I could, because that was the only way I knew how to one day realize my dream. When we moved to Aspen, my dream didn’t fade — it just pivoted, and I traded in my one-piece swimsuit and goggles for ice hockey skates, and my tennis shoes and racket for some really baggy pants and a snowboard! Interestingly, I chose snowboarding back in the early ’90s, when it was the furthest thing from an Olympic sport. In fact, it wasn’t even considered a sport — it was just a “fad,” and it wasn’t even allowed on most mountain resorts, including Aspen Mountain. But I chose to do it anyway — one, because my older brothers were snowboarders and I always wanted to do whatever they were doing; and two, because it was so different from the path of traditional sports. Snowboarding was fresh and new, and it was a movement of creativity, camaraderie, and abundance. There was a rebellion against rules and restrictions in snowboarding, because everyone was just making up the rules as they went along. It was more important to be innovative and to be a trailblazer, and style was a big part of all of it.
What was it that persuaded you to really go for it and pursue a lifelong career in the sport?
In 1998, snowboarding was inducted into the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. That was the first time in my life when I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics for snowboarding. Identifying that path was one step, but then having the courage to actually go for it was an entirely different level of commitment and courage. When I graduated from high school the very next year, I had to jump off the traditional path to pursue this new dream, which was one of the biggest decisions I had ever made in my life. I had always worked really hard in school to get great grades so that I could go to a good college, and now I wasn’t just deciding not to go to college — I was choosing not to go to college to try to become a professional snowboarder! Having the courage to really stand up for that choice time and time again was not always easy and never certain, but I always say that a life of fulfillment and pursuing your purpose is a life worth living!
Was it hard competing in the sport as a woman?
When I first started competing in local USASA events with the Aspen Valley Snowboard Team, there were only a handful of other women competing. It was very male-dominant, and at first it was intimidating, but then I realized that riding and hanging with the guys was a way to really excel, and this wasn’t unfamiliar to me. I grew up in a family with three brothers, so I was used to being the odd one out. The women who came before me — not just in snowboarding, but in sports in general — really paved the way, so that when I came into snowboarding, I felt like we were leaps and bounds ahead of other sports in terms of equality.
You’ve probably had the opportunity to travel all over for work. Where are your favorite places to travel? Does your husband usually tag along?
My husband used to be a pro snowboarder as well, which is how we met, so he is very familiar with this traveling lifestyle and the glamorous and not-so-glamorous parts of the job. We’re also both surfers, and so when we’re not traveling to cold, wintry destinations, we travel to warm, tropical places to thaw and play in the waves. For snowboarding, Japan and New Zealand are a couple of my favorite places — Japan because of the difference in culture, the very kind people, the food and the insane snow! New Zealand because of the gorgeous landscape and the pace of life. Life seems much more simple there, and I guess I’m drawn to warm places because of that very reason. You don’t need a lot of material things when you’re living in a tropical environment, and so life becomes more about experiences and being with the people you love.
What is the one thing most people don’t know about you or would be surprised to learn about you?
My body has a really hard time regulating in the cold! It’s ironic, since I became a pro snowboarder and have spent most of my life in the cold, but it’s another reason I have loved riding the halfpipe. Even on the coldest of days, you can stay warm by hiking the pipe!
How does fashion play a role in your life and/or career?
I think what you wear is really important, because it’s an extension or even a representation of who you are and who you want to be in life. When I’m on the mountain, I want to look good. I want to look like me. I want to be feminine, but also unique, and a bit edgy and badass, too — all of it! I was really fortunate to have had my own signature collection of eyewear, outwear, lifestyle apparel, and accessories called the Gretchen Bleiler Collection. I loved designing because I was able to create all the pieces that I always wanted to wear on the mountain. It’s very rare to find outerwear that is a true blend of fashion and technical materials that are going to be flexible and move the way you need them to and keep you dry and warm! The same is true in life and off the mountain: It’s about the materials and how they move, and how they feel on your body, but also the way you look in them and how they make you feel about yourself. There’s a reason Wonder Woman wears a costume. It makes her feel more powerful and confident, and helps her do extraordinary things! When you’re rocking your own style fully, I think it empowers you to rise to your full potential.
Being an Olympian is such an amazing life accomplishment — what do see as next for yourself?
Through the process of becoming an Olympian, I’ve opened myself up to so many other passions and opportunities. One is being an advocate and activist for our environment and using my voice and my platform to help bring people together to tackle the challenges that are before us. I’ve always loved to push past boundaries and limitations and ask what’s really possible, and I think humanity right now is at a really interesting crossroads with regard to climate change. We can either see it as a threat and become overwhelmed and frozen in our own tracks, or we can shift our perspectives and see it as a challenge and an opportunity to really become even more sustainable, smart, and efficient. That is why my husband and I started our company ALEX — “Always Live Extraordinarily.” ALEX is a stainless steel, reusable water bottle that opens up in the middle for easy cleaning. It’s compactable, and it’s also customizable, and the name is a reminder to live life to the fullest through our everyday decisions and actions. For me, living that life is just as important as inspiring that message in others. That’s how I believe we will be able to live in a more connected and engaged society. I’m now spreading this message through my writing, teaching, and through my company ALEX.
Any essential piece of advice you would give or words to live by?
I believe that the dreams we have, that burn deep within us, are not random at all, but are in fact pointing us in the direction of our greatest potential, happiness, and success in life. Whether we one day realize those dreams or not, we cannot fail, because living our lives every day with meaning and purpose and revolving our actions and decisions around something that moves us is the point! When we have the courage to listen and then to choose in that direction, it opens up a whole new way of being in the world. And that’s the world I want to live in!
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