The big world, as each has discovered, has its pressures. "Competing in elite-level sports, especially on the world's biggest stages, is fun and exciting, but it's also accompanied by tremendous stress, whether financial, being away from family, constant traveling, or dealing with injury," says Harmison. "Research suggests that social support not only helps athletes better deal with competitive stress but also helps performance. For Gretchen, Kelly, and Hannah, their friendship probably acts as a buffer against the stress. Most athletes rely just on family, significant others, coaches, or sports psychologists for that kind of support."
A large part of the trio's chemistry lies in what they don't share. "They're each driven to be the best, but they're completely different," says Byrnes. And the half-pipe suits that range of personalities, Bower explains, because "there's a lot of room for individual flair." Each run must include five or six tricks: flips and spins that are landed both forward (facing the wall) and backward (facing away). The riders are judged on overall impression, variety of tricks, and "big air" (the amount of hang time off the pipe). Gretchen is steady, the technical perfectionist; Kelly is known for her superhigh flying; and Hannah is the powerful wild card.
Their riding styles are an extension of their personalities. Consider the must-haves on their packing lists. Gretchen, who got married last summer to former professional snowboarder Chris Hotell, travels with what she calls "the world's largest cosmetic bag"—15 pounds of lotions, potions, sunscreens, cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, tinted moisturizers.… ("It's hilarious," she says. "And pathetic.") There's glamour, but also a supreme need for order. "On the road, Gretchen always unpacks everything just so," says Bower. "She makes her bed and puts away her luggage, even if it's only for one night." Gretchen's first year on the team, her fellow riders punked her by ransacking her room and then lying in wait to video her reaction.
If that had happened to Hannah, she probably wouldn't have noticed. She's the New Age hippie of the group, traveling with a mountain of stuff, including a didgeridoo, an ancient (and large) Australian wind instrument. "I do circular breathing with it before competitions, and it's really centering." She also brings along a yoga mat, essential oils, and lots of organic food—including Maca Bars, goji berries, and protein powder (thus her other nickname: "Hannah Organnah"). Hannah sells pure Vermont maple syrup called Hannah's Gold to raise money for Kirindon, a Kenyan village she found through World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization. She has also donated her earnings of the last two years ($161,000 in syrup plus prize money) to the town for a clean-water system and a shelter for women with AIDS.
Kelly is the contemplative introvert of the group. "If I'm a New Age hippie, then she's a New Age nerd," says Hannah of Kelly, who travels with a backpack full of inspirational books and a Bible. "She's straight-edge, a superstrong believer in something higher than the realm we're in." Kelly became a Christian shortly after winning her 2002 gold medal. "By the time I was 18, I had won the Olympics, I had won the X-Games, I had won the U.S. Open. I thought success went hand in hand with being happy, and I found that, at the end of the day, it did not fulfill me."
What does fulfill her is the idea of pursuing a dream alongside her friends. "I value them over what we're doing," says Kelly, who thinks nothing of driving the three hours from her home in Mammoth, California, to the Reno, Nevada, airport to pick up Gretchen when she's in town for a boarding competition.
The generosity is reciprocal: That day in Torino, it was Gretchen who consoled Kelly after a slightly off landing in her final run kept her out of the Olympic medals. "I can't tell you how many times she's done that for me," Kelly says. "She was saying, 'You're going to be okay' and wiping the tears from my eyes. Both she and Hannah knew how hard it was. When they tell me I'm going to be okay, I know I am."
At this month's Olympic half-pipe competition, there will be both battle and consolation. Gretchen, Hannah, and Kelly will ride up the chairlift together, do their stretching, and talk about whatever feels right. They may even get a chance to ride some powder together again. But when each of their names is announced, the run will be solo.
In that instant, they will do what they have always done in the pipe—strap in, jump down, and fly.
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