I can't believe I've done it again. As I lie on the ground, I begin to take inventory of my body, brush the dust off my face and gather the strength to stand. I see my horse run to the other end of the ring, clearly as spooked as I am.
Immediately I know my hip is injured. After I get up, each step toward the exit of the ring sends a sharp pain shooting through my right side. But worst of all is the too-familiar feeling of nausea, dizziness and sensitivity to light and noise. I can't believe, after everything I've been through and everything I've learned over the past couple of years, I've hit my head again.
That was last June, two and a half years after I retired from a 13-year career in competitive snowboarding. I had recently rekindled my love of horseback riding and wanted to squeeze in one more lesson before my husband, Chris, and I moved back to Aspen, Colorado, from Southern California. I was busy and tired -- and mad that I set myself up for a fall.
This head injury really struck a nerve because I had just returned from Zeno Mountain Farm in Bristol, Vermont, where I participated in LoveYourBrain's annual retreat.
LoveYourBrain is an organization founded by former pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce and his brother, Adam, after Kevin suffered a near-fatal traumatic brain injury (TBI) while training in the halfpipe for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Kevin's remarkable resilience was documented in the award-winning HBO documentary "The Crash Reel," which revealed that millions of people around the world share Kevin's experience with TBI. The Pearce brothers, who are friends of mine, created LoveYourBrain to serve and bring together the TBI community.
In May, Adam and Kevin reached out to me in hopes that I would host a documentary they were producing around the evolution of LYB's story. Over the course of the week, I learned a lot about traumatic brain injury. And through getting to know the participants, I came to a shocking realization: I was a part of this TBI community, and I didn't even know it. I thought that because I had never suffered a traumatic brain injury like Kevin had -- one severe enough to forever alter the workings of his brain -- that I was different from this group.
But I learned that concussions, cumulative concussions and traumatic brain injury are just different levels of severity on the same scale. I've hit my head countless times throughout my career, and I can count six concussions that gave me symptoms like dizziness, headaches, fatigue, poor concentration, sensitivity to light and noise, and feelings of irritability and frustration in large group settings -- symptoms I had to heal from before getting back on my snowboard.
While we were filming, Kevin's doctor made a really good analogy, relating the brain to a Coca-Cola can. He said, "When you smash the can, you can straighten it back up, but when you smash it again, it's easier to crumple. That's similar to our brain when we suffer a concussion. Once we have a concussion, we can heal from it, and yet we're also more likely to sustain them again."
In my case, the more concussions I sustained, the more prominent and long-lasting my symptoms became. The most powerful understanding I took from the retreat is that while I have healed from my head injuries, I carry them with me every single day. This is a little-known truth that most people who have sustained head injuries don't know -- and it's one that could prevent so many unnecessary concussions in the future, for myself and millions of people just like me.
In 2012, I was riding better than I had in my career. Toward the end of the season, I knew I had to push harder in order to return to the top of the podium. At the end of February, I took a bad fall while training in the halfpipe at Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain. Because it was easier to treat my body, I went to physical therapy before hopping on a flight to Switzerland for the European Open, and my minor concussion went unaddressed.
A week later, I was competing in the most perfect springtime halfpipe and was in a battle for the top spot. Standing in second place with one run to go in the finals, I decided I wanted to throw my hardest run, the one I had fallen on in Aspen. I hadn't practiced it that week, but I felt like I had nothing to lose. As I wound up for my backside 900, I felt myself initiate the trick too early, and I had another ferocious fall.
This time, I injured my shoulder pretty badly and also hit my head -- again. Flying back to Vermont for the U.S. Open, the final contest of the season, I was stiff, sore and bruised. I took a couple of days off from riding and saw another physical therapist to help improve the range of motion in my shoulder. Again, my concussion went virtually unaddressed because there were more tangible injuries to fix.
During my first practice back on my board, I attempted a frontside corked 720, a trick I had done hundreds of times, pulled a little too far away from the halfpipe wall and landed toward the bottom of the transition, whipping my head into the hard snow once again. This time, my symptoms were obvious and immediate. Later that week, I had to pull out of the event altogether because of concussion symptoms that lasted for about a month after my fall.
That June, about a month and a half after my symptoms finally subsided, I went to Utah to work with my coach on the trampoline to begin the process of learning a new trick that would take my level of riding to an all-time high. The Crippler had long been my strongest trick. Based on experience, I knew that a double Crippler was within my potential. It was something I had been thinking about for the past year, but arriving in Park City made it a reality.
I became consumed and overanalytical in my approach. And while warming up on the trampoline, I threw a backflip one-and-a-half too hard. I had to make a split-second decision: go for the double or try to stop it? I decided to go for the double, but I didn't make it around. I landed on the back of my neck with my knees and legs still tucked. The momentum forced my knee into my face, breaking my nose, splitting open my eyebrow, shattering the orbital floor of my eye socket, giving me my fourth concussion in a five-month period and literally knocking the competitive fire right out of me.
That was the final straw that ultimately led me to retire from competition two years later.
"Having this awareness doesn't make me fearful or regret the choices I've made throughout my career." Gretchen Bleiler
Over the course of my 13-year career, I've had a lot of concussions, and yet, because I'm no longer competing or suffering from concussion symptoms, I felt like I was in the clear. The reality, though, is that I get concussions far more easily and my symptoms last far longer than ever before. Now, at concussion No. 7, I can honestly say I am part of the TBI community.
Like the NFL, the action sports world is just beginning to discover that its legends suffer the consequences of a lifetime of cumulative concussions. But unlike the NFL, we are still early in our evolution and in a position to be proactive and start talking about this issue now, before more of our sport's greats become victims of their circumstances.
While I don't have concussion symptoms currently, I know it's not outside the realm of possibility that I will experience symptoms later in my life. Having this awareness doesn't make me fearful or regret the choices I've made throughout my career -- but this knowledge empowers me to make the best choices for my health and well-being now, in order to prevent unnecessary concussions in the future.
This is an important message that I want to share with our snowboarding and action sports community. I believe there are a lot of professional athletes and fans who are in a similar position to mine. But like me, they have no idea that LoveYourBrain is an organization and support system for them, too. The message is not one of fear or even change -- it's of knowledge and awareness to empower people to make conscious choices that support their overall well-being.
Having the courage to address issues of this magnitude is what makes our action sports world unique. We are innovative, open-minded, proactive people. Let's use these qualities to help change lives, build community and be an example of how an industry can address a major issue in ways that are positive, inspiring and proactive.
Next month, I'm participating in LoveYourBrain's #MindfulMarch campaign, a global yoga fundraising initiative taking place during Brain Injury Awareness Month. Check out loveyourbrain.com to learn more.