Bleiler on cover of ESPN Mag 'Bodies'

For snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, the decision to pose naked in ESPN The Magazine's third-annual Body Issue, which hits newsstands Friday, was not made lightly. "I took it so seriously," she says. "It's such a vulnerable thing for an athlete to do."

She knows from experience. In February 2004, Bleiler appeared on the cover of FHM weaing only body paint. A few months after taking silver at the 2006 Winter Olympics, she posed for Jane magazine's "clothes off our back" feature covered only by a not-so-strategically placed sheet. Bleiler even appeared once before in the buff in ESPN The Mag, in the 2004 Winter X Games preview issue, along with four other athletes willing to bear it all. But she swore she'd never do it again. At least not until it was on her terms. She says she was young each of those times and felt pressure to say yes. More than once, she felt the magazine's editors didn't portray her image as promised.

"That's why I turned down the Body Issue the first two times they asked," she says. "I wasn't ready. This time, I was saying yes because I wanted to do it. And I felt confident in my decision."

In each of the first two Body Issues, one action sports athlete was featured in the much-anticipated and all-nude Bodies We Want section: surfers Claire Bevilacqua in 2009 and Kelly Slater in 2010. This year's issue features three: Bleiler, Olympic snowboarder Louie Vito and four-time world surfing champ Steph Gilmore.

"Louie's been working out super hard and changing his diet, so I'm excited he's included," Bleiler says. " I know he's psyched to be in the issue." A week before the mag's release, Vito sent her a text. "He asked if I got the cover," Bleiler says. To answer for her: yes, she did. When the issue hits stands on Wednesday, Bleiler will be one of four athletes -- Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and U.S. Soccer goalie Hope Solo are the others--featured on four separate covers. "It's such an honor," she says. "I never would have imagined I would be on two ESPN magazine covers, let alone be naked on one."

We caught up with Bleiler on her way to New Zealand to find out what it's like to anticipate seeing herself on newsstands wearing nothing but her well-known smile. "Actually," she says, "I made it a point not to smile. I wanted the photos to look badass and determined, not cute and smiley." This time, she called the shots.

ESPN.com: Why the second, late-season trip to New Zealand? Are you fleeing the country before the mag hits stands?
Gretchen Bleiler:
I've never been to New Zealand this late in the season, but I've stayed in touch with folks down there and heard about these camps going on right now. It's the perfect time for me to get back on snow and work with an airbag. We always have a big gap between the spring camp and I've always thought it was weird the U.S. team doesn't go back to New Zealand later in the year. I'm excited to get my cork 7 and cork 9 dialed again and feel more prepared for the contest season. So I called up Kelly [Clark] and asked if she wanted to go to New Zealand with me. And two weeks later, here we are at LAX on our way. Kaitlyn Farrington's here, too.

Airports are a great place to browse magazine stands. What do you think it will be like to see your naked photo front and center at Hudson Booksellers?
It's pretty crazy. I haven't seen it yet, so I don't even know what shot they used. When I was at the shoot, everyone was like, the biggest anxiety days will be the day of the shoot and the day before the issue hits newsstands. After the shoot, I was like, I won't be nervous. This was the hardest day and now it's over. But now I'm like, okay. They were right.

How did your family react when you told them you were on the cover?
When I was first asked, [my husband] Chris was the one who said I should do it. But I just put it out of my mind. This year, I talked about it with Chris and my mom and weighed the pros and cons. It was a group decision and I took it so seriously. It's such a vulnerable thing to do as an athlete, to shoot naked and have it be open for everyone's opinion and feedback. But if you do it for the right reasons and are confident in your decision, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks.

I wrote an email to send out to my extended family, my aunts and uncles, to give them a heads up that I may be appearing naked on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. That is the most nerve wracking, telling all of my family. But I haven't sent the e-mail yet. I need to do that today. It's weird that I'll be out of the country when it comes out. I swear I didn't plan that.

You'd sworn off naked photo shoots. What made you decide to do the Body Issue?
Over the years, the Body Issue has become this well-respected and well-received magazine in the athletes' eyes. Knowing the best of the best have been in it and wanted to be in it helped me. In the past few years, I wasn't ready to do it, which is why I turned it down. I didn't want to do it. But being grouped with the best athletes in the world is amazing. And I love the way ESPN is celebrating athletes in every shape and size and showing them being strong and powerful. I love that it's not about being sexy.

The Magazine asked before. Why weren't you ready last year?
Because of my experiences in the past. At the time, I felt like I had to do it and my experience wasn't great. Because it wasn't me saying, "Yes, I want to do this." Now, I feel confident in my decision. And I'm psyched on the photos and the communication I had with everyone at ESPN and the photographer leading up to it. I feel like I had control and so I felt more confident about doing it.

Still, when it comes down to it, you had to spend the day naked with cameras pointed at you. What was the photo shoot like?
Francesco is the most amazing photographer. He was so cool and laid back and easy to talk to. I felt confident with him. I had a call with him beforehand and told him my concerns and what I wanted the vibe to be. There was this funny moment I will never forget. I went in consciously knowing I didn't want to smile. I wanted the shoot to have a determined, powerful badass feel. For me, it's always way easier to be smily than look tough, so I needed his help. I said, "Please don't take any photos if I accidentally smile." He said, "Well, you're in luck, because I'm known for my non-smiling photos." He made me feel comfortable and I left the day feeling good about how the shoot went.

What was it like to find out you were selected for the cover?
It's an honor, obviously, to be in a group with all these amazing athletes, and to be one of the covers is pretty unbelievable. I never would have thought that I would be on two ESPN covers, let alone be naked on one. Speaking of ... I really need to send that email.

The 2011 Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine hits newsstands Friday. For all Body Issue content, click here.