Unprecedented eye training program has Gretchen Bleiler eyeing Winter Olympics

Thanks to an unprecedented eye exercise program, one that doctors said wouldn’t work, world-class snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler is on the verge of qualifying for her third Winter Olympics team in the halfpipe.

Gretchen Bleiler
Gretchen Bleiler in the halfpipe; photo courtesy of Muscle Milk

The last thing she was thinking about was qualifying for Sochi after shattering her right eye socket when attempting a double backflip on a trampoline while training in Park City, Utah, in June 2012.

Bleiler threw the trick too hard and landed on her head, kneeing herself in the face. Not only did she break her eye socket, she suffered a broken nose and a concussion.

“Honestly, it was such a bad accident that I wasn’t even thinking about snowboarding,” Bleiler told the L.A. Times. “I wasn’t thinking about the Olympics. I was just thinking about getting better and physically feeling better, being able to see again.”

She was unable to open her eye for two weeks.

“There were a lot of people who thought this was going to be a career-ending accident for me,” Bleiler said in a video entitled “Gretchen Bleiler: Vision,” produced by her sponsor Muscle Milk. The 4 1/2-minute video documents her never-been-done-before eye training program and unconventional recovery, which proved many wrong:

In October 2012, three months after reconstructive surgery, Bleiler dropped back into the halfpipe in New Zealand and immediately knew she shouldn’t be there. The uninjured eye was in one spot, but the injured eye did not follow. She was seeing double, was off balance, and became dizzy.

Doctors told her that eye exercises wouldn’t help, said Robin Gorog, Bleiler’s mother. But being an athlete used to doing things to recover from injuries, Bleiler felt strongly that there had to be a way to get better.

So in November 2012, Bleiler and Brad Jones, her physical therapist and strength coach, devised a rigorous eye training program, combining ocular rehabilitation with high-intensity strength training and conditioning.

“We basically created this customized program that probably no one’s ever done before,” Bleiler said. “Brad said, ‘OK, you’ve been doing these eye exercises by yourself, but you don’t do them in motion, so we’re going to add in the motions.’”

She began doing the eye exercises while performing squats and other agility exercises.

Gretchen Bleiler
Gretchen Bleiler exercises with eyes focused on paper target held by trainer Brad Jones; photo is a screen grab from video

“This is definitely a crazy program that is very unconventional,” Bleiler said. “The exercises reenacted the speed you have to take in the halfpipe combined with where you need to look.”

Bleiler’s vision progressively improved, to the point where it was no longer holding her back. Jones told the Times they broke new ground on new territory with the eye training program.

Gretchen Bleiler training, photo courtesy of Muscle Milk

“Unless you train for it, like why would you expect it to come back?” Jones said. “That’s the thing I was looking at. We just can’t wait for it to come back. We have to train for it to get it back.”

As a result, Bleiler now has both eyes clearly focused on the task at hand: a return trip to the Winter Olympics.

Bleiler, 32, was a silver medalist at the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, was a gold-medal favorite in the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 (she finished 11th after falling on her two runs), and is a four-time gold medalist at the Winter X Games.

Entering the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix in Breckenridge, Colorado, this week, Bleiler was in third place overall in qualifying; up to four qualifiers in each snowboarding event can go. With two more qualifiers remaining, her chances look good.

Even better with two good eyes.

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