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Gretchen Bleiler Eyes Gold Before Body Paint
Sunday, 12 February 2006





BARDONECCHIA, Italy, Feb. 12 Should Gretchen Bleiler win the gold medal in the women's halfpipe on Monday, as many expect her to do, she knows there will be more requests for body painting.

Before Bleiler was the queen of the halfpipe, the favorite at the Olympics, the top female snowboarder in the United States, she was recognized mainly as that lean blonde who was pictured on the cover of a men's magazine wearing nothing but body paint.

Most snowboarders are photographed in puffy parkas and baggy pants, their faces obscured by goggles, bandannas and beanies, as they twist upside down in the air. But since Bleiler removed her layers and was turned into a human canvas, she is more often asked to pose . . . well,

"Naked," she said. "Or maybe in a bathing suit. I get it a lot. Sometimes I want to tell people, 'By the way, I'm a snowboarder, too.' "

That message has come across in recent months, as Bleiler won four of the five Grand Prix contests leading up to the Olympics. She dazzles the fashionistas with her white ensembles, and the judges with her ability to string together difficult tricks.

Bleiler is known as the only woman in the world who even attempts the Michalchuk, a daring move in which a rider flips and rotates at the same time.

Like many well-known women in major sports, Bleiler's skills made her successful, but her looks combined with those skills could make her famous. Following training sessions last week, she was ushered from one photo shoot to another. All of the shoots had one quality in common in none of them was she actually doing any riding.

As Bleiler mimicked her poses for the camera smiley-face and pouty-face, glance to the left and stare to the right she started to laugh at herself. "It's a lot of fun," she said, "But there are times when I'm like, 'Can I go do something real now?' "

At 24, Bleiler may eventually have to decide if she wants to be a snowboarder-model or a model-snowboarder. In one breath, she says that posing is the hardest part of her job. In the next, she suggests that professional modeling could be in her future. For now, she strikes a balance as the glamorous face of extreme sports.

Although snowboarding has always prided itself on a rugged and unkempt image, Bleiler is not the only female rider going to hair-and-makeup these days. Lindsey Jacobellis, the curly-haired blonde woman who stars on the American snowboardcross team and in Visa's Olympic advertising campaign, sounds about as conflicted as Bleiler when it comes to her marketability.

"I like that it opens doors," Jacobellis said. "I don't like that it can sometimes be a hassle."

If Bleiler and Jacobellis have an international equivalent, it is probably the halfpipe contender Torah Bright, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Australian who wears a thick band of rhinestones on her helmet. Bright's headgear may suggest a certain desire to play dress-up, but her inner snowboarder will not allow it. "Most of the time that stuff is not cool," Bright said. "It's all goofy faces."

Still, those faces are helping snowboarding reach the mainstream, and allowing riders to dent the inner circle of sports' celebrity. Casual fans identify Shaun White with his bushy red hair, Jacobellis with her tight curls and Bleiler with her, well, her paint.

"When you take that first step, you have to realize what you're setting yourself up for," Bleiler said. "You have to know that it is going to shape your image from then on. The first step is very important. You have to ask yourself if you're O.K. with it."

She paused, as if to be posing that very question to herself: "And I'm O.K. with it."

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