There are three of them, and only one Olympic gold. What happens when your fiercest competitors are also among your best friends? Kate Meyers reports on the special kinship that bonds the top female snowboarding team on the planet.
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."
In part, that's because of snowboarding's relative newness. "When most boarders went to a competition as kids, there were only a handful of others in their age group, so they often became really good friends," says Bower. But it also comes from the freewheeling spirit of boarding, which has moves with names like Crippler and McTwist. Most boarders, including these three, got into the sport not because they were pushed by parents or thought it would someday make them rich but because it was fun.
"When they're around each other, they're drawn to being the best," says Hannah's brother and manager, Amen. "There's this spirit of good-natured free expression. Their progression is spiraling upward, and I don't think that would be the case if they didn't like and push each other."
Kelly, 27, and Gretchen, 28, have been friends since 2000, when the two then-rookies went to their first training camp in California and proceeded to lock the car keys in the team van. "We were like, 'Okay, let's just tell them we both did it.' And that was that," says Kelly. They've roomed together ever since. Hannah, the baby of the trio, met the others in 2003, when she was 16. Eight or nine months of the year, the three eat, sleep, travel, and train together. They skydive in New Zealand, golf in Oregon, and surf in Costa Rica. They horseback ride, hike, bike, and kayak.
All three grew up in or near resorts. Gretchen, who was raised in Dayton and Aspen, and Hannah, from Belmont, Vermont, were tomboys who tried to keep pace with their older brothers (Gretchen has three, Hannah four) on the mountain. Kelly grew up near the Vermont resort of Mount Snow, where her parents signed her up for ski racing. "The racing was really competitive, and I didn't enjoy being pushed by someone else," Kelly recalls. "The first year snowboarding was allowed at our mountain, I got a board and was hooked. I finally skipped enough ski-racing practice that my dad stopped paying for it. In snowboarding, you find people competing who are actually rooting for each other. That didn't happen in ski racing."
In fact, the three will tell you that their friendship is the best part of the sport. "It's a great lesson in life to be hanging out with the person who beat you, because you have to let it pass, and it keeps you humble," says Gretchen. "When I started snowboarding, I was looking for success to bring me identity. I still love to win, but at the same time, I don't need the X-Games to show me who I am."
They compete every weekend, "so they have to learn to collect themselves quickly, because they're going to be getting in the car and on the plane together," Byrnes says. "It's like family. Everybody's not always holding hands and skipping along—they have their moments. But it's about leaving what's on the playing field on the playing field."
Adds Hannah: "We have a support system everywhere we go—on the mountain, when we're traveling—and it adds a huge dimension. We never fight. We're always supportive—it's hard to find that in the big world sometimes."
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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Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
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