Gretchen Bleiler remembers the moment it hit. "After the Winter '06 Olympics, I went to the Daytona 500 and waved the green flag," she says. "Then it was straight to Tahoe for a Vans Cup. I was standing at the top of the half-pipe, but I felt nothing," she says. "Something was wrong." The silver medalist and one of the world's most decorated female snowboarders had lost her passion.
So she did something unusual. She took a year off. Instead of focusing on the 2010 Olympics (and the dozen or so competitions in the 2007-08 winter season alone), Bleiler, 27, ditched the terrain parks to rediscover her sport in the planet's remote backcountry. The first stop was the Japanese island of Hokkaido, one of the snowiest places on Earth. She and a few friends hit hike-in "pillow drops," huge hummocks of snow piled on steep boulders, and tore through avalanche barriers in search of fresh tracks. Then it was off to Krasnaya Polyana, in the Russian Caucasus, where Bleiler (filming segments for Uniquely, a film released this October) built kickers over fallen trees and carved isolated bowls via helicopter. Finally, she landed in the Alberta Rockies to nail a few big-mountain lines.
"It's amazing what happens when you take yourself out of what's comfortable," Bleiler says. By the time she hit the half-pipe again, she was a rider reborn, with newfound confidence and a freshly honed competitive edge. Proof that sometimes stepping away is the best thing you can do.
- Nat Geo Expeditions