ASPEN, CO, Jan. 25 2004 (AP by John Marshall) -- Strangers have told Gretchen Bleiler she's an inspiration. Mike Metzger has been mobbed at the mall. Kelly Clark even needed a security detail to get through an airport. Yep, these Winter X stars are off the chain.
"It's pretty hectic sometimes," said Clark, an Olympic and Winter X gold medalist in snowboard super pipe. "It's crazy to think about if you actually were a real celebrity. That would really get hectic."
While Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods don't have to worry about getting pushed aside by autograph seekers, there is no disputing that the stars of Winter X attract an audience.
The Winter X Games, created by ESPN in 1997, are broadcast to more than 100 countries and draw millions of viewers every year. Thousands more fans cram the slopes of Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen each year, braving the cold to get a glimpse of their favorites.
"They have a great energy, they're real low key," said Francesca Gurney, who watched Sunday's events in a heavy snowstorm. "They're mellow and they're the kind of people you can go up and talk to,"
Clark learned about celebrity after winning gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
With that one event, she went from occasionally getting recognized in ski towns to being mobbed in airports. She's also had fans give up first-class seats on flights and was even chased into a bathroom by an autograph seeker.
"It's crazy sometimes, but it's flattering and it's nice know that you inspire people enough that they recognize you," said Clark, who also gets plenty of fan mail from kids wanting tips on snowboarding.
Metzger's turning point came after winning two gold medals at the 2002 X Games in Philadelphia. He was mobbed nearly every time he went out in the weeks after the event and one group of older ladies asked for autographs _ for themselves.
"I was actually in kind of a depressed mode for a little bit just because I didn't have any privacy anymore," Metzger said. "I couldn't go shopping, couldn't go anywhere without being mobbed by fans and kids. But I got used to and it's just part of life."
It certainly makes for a good life.
Following the lead of X Games icon Tony Hawk, the first crossover action sports star, Winter X's top stars are cashing in on their fame.
Hawk turned riding a skateboard into a $10 million-a-year business, with clothing and skateboarding companies, a road show, video games and numerous endorsements, including Heinz Bagel Bites.
None of the Winter X stars have reached Hawk's level _ no action sport star has _ but they're doing all right for themselves.
Most of the top athletes travel around the world to events, spending their winters in North America and Europe, and summers in places like New Zealand and Chile. Metzger figures he's been everywhere except South Africa and Greenland, and Clark is a 100K member with United Airlines.
They're also cashing in on endorsements.
Several Winter X athletes are featured in video games, snowboarder Ross Powers has a Lego set made in his likeness and Shaun White, another snowboarder, is sponsored by retail store Target.
Metzger has used his celebrity to start Metzger Action Sports, which recently opened a motorcycle retail shop in Paris.
"The sky's the limit when you reach a certain point of being an athlete like that," Metzger said.
Copyright © 2004 The Associated Press