Slopes and Dreams

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Every Olympics offers up two kinds of athletes: heavily hyped favorites and underdogs just happy to reach the show. After winning four of five Grand Prix events entering the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy, snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler landed squarely in the first category. Meanwhile, with Bode Miller grabbing all the headlines, skier Ted Ligety cruised under the radar. In the end, both shined: Bleiler snagged silver in the half-pipe, and Ligety claimed gold in the combined. Their roles may be somewhat reversed in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, but thanks to the killer fitness levels both competitors maintain, even stronger results may await. Here are their stories.

Going downhill, fast

“I still think it’s a little weird when people say I am an Olympic gold medalist.” That one statement illustrates just how surprised Ligety was by his ’06 win in the combined, a discipline that adds up a skier’s times in one downhill and two slalom runs — and wasn’t even considered the best event of a ski racer barely old enough to drink. But having ripped up the slopes in his hometown of Park City, Utah, since the tender age of 2, Ligety possessed nearly two decades of experience and plenty of passion. “You can push the limits so far beyond your comfort zone on skis,” he raves. “It’s an adrenaline rush that never gets boring.”

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Things will be different in Vancouver. This time around, the 2008 World Cup champ in giant slalom, now 25, bears the weight of high expectations. He won’t be sneaking up on his fellow skiers, and “assuming nobody steps up and I don’t suck,” he’ll be competing in four demanding events — combined, slalom, giant slalom and super-G — one more than he entered in Torino. To handle the pressure, excel in multiple disciplines and avoid injury, he can’t just show up with a new coat of wax on his Rossignols. Nope, the man nicknamed “Ligety Split” must dial in his most critical piece of equipment — his body — to take on the challenge.

“In ski racing, you need to be able to push out of turns and not get stuck on one edge,” Ligety says. “You’re going 60 miles an hour and trying to pull off a tight radius, fighting off lateral G-forces. It takes all your strength to stay upright and not get your ass smashed against the backs of your bindings.” That’s why he spends several days a week in the U.S. Ski Team’s Park City-based fitness center, pounding his lower body with plyometric jumps, explosive lifts from a squatting position and negatives on the leg-press machine. “We do a lot of cleans, deadlifts and hamstring curls, ” he adds.

When skiers’ bodies are almost parallel to the snow during turns, they need strong back and stomach muscles to stay in control, as well. “My favorite exercises for the core are hanging from a bar and lifting my legs up to it and medicine-ball throws,” Ligety says. These moves also hit his upper body; strong arms help skiers use their poles to launch out of the starting gate and maintain balance on the course. “If you lose your pole, it’s not very advantageous, but it’s easier to ski with one pole than one ski,” he says, jokingly. “One ski, you’re done.”

Outside the weight room, Ligety cross-trains by running, cycling, mountain biking and water skiing to boost his full-body fitness. “You can’t just be strong,” he explains. “You need pretty decent endurance for a two-and-half-minute course and have a good enough base to recover for the next run.”

Being well-rounded isn’t limited to Ligety’s fitness approach. Off the slopes, he’s started his own business, Shred Optics, a growing goggle, sunglass and helmet company. “I wore hot-pink neon goggles at the last Olympics, and I got a ton of e-mails from kids asking about them,” he recalls. “I wasn’t too psyched about what’s out there for ski racers. Shred combines the performance and safety of ski-racing gear with the edgier style of free riding.” With 15 sponsored athletes covering every type of skiing, as well as snowboarding, and product names like the Toupee Deluxe, Brain Bucket, Spock and Sir Edmund, Shred’s bringing a fresh and funky flavor to the industry.

Of course, no matter what you choose to wear on the mountain, one question looms in the heart and mind of every skier: How do I beat my buddies to the bottom of the hill? “Techniquewise, focus on flexing your ankles,” urges the once and possibly future gold medalist. “Push your shins toward the front of the boot, bring your hands forward and keep a good, wide stance. That allows the skis to engage onto a clean arc and absorb bumps rather than leaving you at the mercy of the terrain.” Need a visual aid? Keep your eyes on Ligety Split in February.

Air of optimism

As one of the most talented and telegenic members of the 2006 Olympic team, Bleiler came into the games with tremendous pressure — and an extraordinary mindset.

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“Everybody wants to win, but for me, victory meant having the best run of my life,” she says. “I didn’t care if I won gold, silver, bronze, or didn’t medal at all because the most important part to me was a perfect run.” That run earned her a silver medal — not bad for a girl who didn’t strap into a snowboard till age 11.

That’s how old Bleiler was when her family moved from Toledo, Ohio, to Aspen, Colo. Though she got a relatively late start in the sport, the three-time X Games gold medalist sees her flatland roots as an advantage. “Coming from Ohio, I appreciated the mountains more,” she explains. “The kids who grew up in Aspen took it for granted.” And in 1998, when many of those kids headed off to college, Bleiler stayed home, worked in a bakery, and pursued her dream of competing in what was then the newest Olympic sport. “That was a little scary, but I am proud I chose this path,” she says.

Bleiler’s relentless positivity would be annoying if it weren’t so damn genuine, and it extends to all phases of her life, including her fitness regimen. Thanks to opposite seasons in places like New Zealand and Chile, pro boarders ride pretty much year-round, competing from November to April. But on top of that, Bleiler stays active with pursuits like surfing, mountain biking, yoga, Pilates and hiking. On top of that, throughout the summer and fall, she’s in the gym five days a week.

“I work with an amazing trainer who’s also a physical therapist,” the 28-year-old says. “Technique is very helpful for injury prevention, so we mimic certain positions I’ll be in on the mountain. If I overshoot a jump and come down front-foot heavy, I'm able to fire from muscle memory to get out of that position hastily.” As knees and shoulders are common injury spots, Bleiler does a variety of squats — single-leg, lateral, squats with rotations, squats on unstable surfaces — plus shoulder and core work, focusing on form rather than heavy weight.

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This routine also aids in executing tricks. “A lot of initiation with spins and flips comes from the legs, through the hips, core, shoulders and head,” Bleiler explains. “The more you want to spin, the stronger you need to snap your body. And to have it look good, you have to be really efficient.” In other words, the 720 Crippler she’s recently mastered has its foundation in the gym, not the half-pipe. And also in the simple fact that Bleiler’s got guts. “It’s my job to push the limits and overcome fears to stay at the top,” she says.

Yet her talents aren’t limited to whirling through the air as a crowd drops its collective jaw. Of late, Bleiler’s been using her shred icon status to advocate environmental responsibility. “As professional snowboarders, we chase the snow, and we see the effects of climate change firsthand,” she says. “After the 2006 Olympics, I realized I had a platform to do something about it.”

Since then, she’s gotten involved with stopglobalwarming.org and created the Snow Angels Invitational, an all-female snowboard competition that features an environmental workshop. She’s also teamed up with her major sponsors on the design of earth-friendly products like Oakley’s 100-percent recycled/recyclable Lighter Fare and Mane Eco Jackets, and K2’s Eco Pop board, which eliminates unnecessary materials without sacrificing performance.

As a new crop of hotshot riders garners press attention, Bleiler may share the spotlight a bit in Vancouver, but her approach hasn’t changed one iota. “My goals are to enjoy the entire experience, to do the perfect run that I have in my head with style, amplitude and grace, and to inspire kids who are watching to take a chance and go down this path,” she says. Like Ligety, she also has some advice for aspiring snow sliders: “Set goals so you have something to work toward and motivate yourself. Have fun — it can become so serious in your head. And bend your knees!”