Reporting from Aspen, Colo. — There are snow days and then there are snow(boarding) days.
After all, ESPN's Winter X Games here might as well be an officially sanctioned school holiday. Morning practice was finishing Thursday at Buttermilk Mountain and Olympian Gretchen Bleiler was taking off her board at the bottom of the pipe, chatting with Mike Jankowski, the U.S Olympic head halfpipe coach.
Jankowski spotted a group of elementary school youngsters -- kids about 8 or 9 years old given the day off from the classroom -- peeking over the fence and practically shaking with excitement.
"They just screamed looking at Gretchen," he said. "They had the biggest grins."
So what did Bleiler do?
"She screamed back at them and had the biggest smile on her face, slid over, said hello and signed about 20, 25 autographs," Jankowski said.
He was retelling the story to illustrate the wide-ranging appeal of not only Bleiler, a hometown Aspen star with model looks, but of the other members of the women's halfpipe team. "The girls are the Dream Team," Jankowski said.
But it is no pipe-Dream Team.
Kelly Clark, who will be competing in her third Olympics, has a gold medal. So does Hannah Teter, who won in Turin, Italy, four years ago, and Elena Hight, at 20, is headed to her second Olympics.
Then there's Bleiler, a silver medalist at the 2006 Olympics, who has that intangible cross-over appeal, landing her in magazines ranging from Rolling Stone to Vanity Fair to FHM and helping launch her own clothing and outerwear line with Oakley.
That's off the pipe. On it, she is the only snowboarder to have prevented an all-Clark sweep of the five Olympic qualifying events this season.
Bleiler won the second of back-to-back events at Mammoth this month, changing her signature opening trick and going with a 900 instead. Moreover, the victory meant she wouldn't have to go into last weekend's final two events at Park City, Utah, having to worry about still needing to make the Olympic team.
"I've been trying to figure out my whole run this season," she said. "It feels good to be on the right track. I was losing speed and losing amplitude and it just wasn't flowing. So after qualifiers [at Mammoth], I decided to switch it up all together and talked to my coaches. They thought it was a good idea and it was my job in practice to nail it and it kept getting better and better."
The X Games under the snowy Aspen big top are something of a final dress rehearsal for next month in Vancouver -- without the stiff Olympic formality -- and complete with top international competition under the lights.
Bleiler, Clark, Teter and Hight are all on hand, as are the men from the Olympic halfpipe team, led by Shaun White, and qualifications were Thursday night. Quite simply, Bleiler, at 28, is the best female snowboarder without an Olympic gold medal on her long resume.
"In terms of style, she is really smooth, graceful and explosive," Jankowski said. "Really powerful riding and absolutely attacking in the pipe, making it look effortless, smooth and clean.
"That's a huge part of her success. That's what the judges look for: an all-out approach and at the same time making it look smooth and clean. It is a hard thing to do."
Bleiler can handle that push-and-pull duality whether it's in the pipe, balancing the demands of career and marriage or helping design her clothing line to her liking.
"I've always had a very strong opinion of how I like to look on the mountain and off the mountain," Bleiler said. "And I think it's important when you're a woman to look feminine and flattering.
"And that doesn't mean pretty in pink. I can be bold and edgy too."
That means sticking to the integrity of the sport's roots despite the seismic increase in publicity and commercial popularity since joining the Olympic movement.
The word "sellout" quit being an insult long ago for many athletes. But it would still resonate, and hurt, in this world.
"Snowboarding is such an image-conscious sport," she said. "In 2002, it really became mainstream at the Olympics. Because it is such an image-conscious sport, I think it's done a good job of balancing the fine line between core and mainstream
"You definitely can tell the people that are true to their sport and the people who are not. There's never been rules and regulations. Very much a sport of self-expression."
Yes, even if that means admitting doubt and anxiety before dropping in, trying to forget the previous crashes on the icy pipe.
"As a professional snowboarder, it's my job to scare myself every day," Bleiler said. "Lots of people say, 'You must never be afraid of anything.' It's not the case at all. I am afraid -- but it's getting past it and having the confidence in yourself that you can push past those boundaries."
Said Jankowski: "She's calm, centered and realistic. If you could bottle it, I'd be at the front of the line."