Photo: Damien Meyer/Getty Images
Two hours before the most important competition of their lives, snowboarders Gretchen Bleiler and Hannah Teter decided to head up the mountain and bust some powder. It was February 13, 2006, in Torino, Italy, and that morning the two, along with teammate Kelly Clark, had qualified for the Olympic finals in the half-pipe. Faced with a long stretch of watching and waiting, Gretchen suggested an outing to blow off steam. Kelly opted to stay put, but Hannah, whose ailing knee had limited her to two days of practice in the half-pipe that week ("Mostly I lay back in the pool with my floaties and visualized my run"), was game for an easy, low-impact ride. So off they went, with coach Ricky Bower in tow, in search of some out-of-bounds adventure. What they found was a snowboarder's nirvana—blazing sun, cobalt sky, and untracked powder. By the time they realized they needed to get back to the competition, armed guards were blocking their way. "We had to duck this fence, and this guy with a machine gun was screaming at us in Italian, and I'm thinking we're going to get shot in the back," says Gretchen. "But we ended up going into the finals with this awesome energy. I remember slapping hands with Hannah and thinking, 'This is what it's about.'" That afternoon she won the silver medal and Hannah, the gold. Kelly, whose heroic final run was one solid landing short of topping them both, finished fourth.
These three women fly through the air as a career choice. Their vehicle: a five-foot board. Their trajectory: After ascending one side of a 22-foot-tall half-pipe (a U-shaped structure with gravity-defying curved walls) at 30 mph, they zoom up and off its lip, ten feet into the wild blue yonder, where they flip, spin, and twist midair before landing, turning, and doing it all again. They call each other GB, Miss Sassy Pants, and Clark-o. To snowboarders everywhere, they are simply the best female riding team on the planet. And if all goes according to plan, they will represent the United States at this month's Olympic Games in Vancouver.
In the pipe, they are full-on warriors. Out of it, they are the best of friends. "They support each other, but they're very clear on their goals," says ex-teammate Tricia Byrnes, who was Gretchen's maid of honor at her wedding last summer and is now Kelly's manager. "It's like 'Good for you! But now I want to outdo you.' It's not personal. They all want theirs to be the best run and they all want to stand on top of the podium. But, like, no hard feelings."
To those of us who don't compete at an elite level, the idea of trying to demolish your closest friends might seem unnatural, but to these three—who between them have won five U.S. Open championships, six X-Game championships, and three Olympic medals—it's actually a plus. "They're a great example of 'We're all in this together,'" says Robert Harmison, PhD, professor of sport psychology at James Madison University and consultant to the team. "Theirs is a performance ideal—a perfect blend of the traditionally feminine trait of cooperation with the traditionally masculine trait of competitiveness. I've worked with athletes for 25 years, and snowboarding is different: It allows that to happen more than any other sport I've seen."