Vail’s Schleper, family eye Olympic glory
Parenthood has been a journey, ski racer Sarah Schleper said as she stood on Bridge Street in Vail, Colorado, watching her 2-year-old son, Lasse, play.
Hopefully, the journey will run through Vancouver this winter — maybe even the medal stand. The Vail native Schleper, in what she says is her final year skiing competitively, is aiming to make her fourth Olympic team and win her first medal.
Her new family has taught her that there’s more to life than skiing. On the other hand, though, she’s still incredibly competitive, and maybe even more dedicated. She wakes each day at 5 a.m. to begin her training regimen, being careful not to wake her sleeping husband and son.
“The success of my skiing isn’t the most important thing for me anymore, which has been almost a relief, taking off a lot of the pressure in the starting gate and all that,” said Schleper, her trademark blond, curly hair as big as ever. “But I’m still super focused on going fast and working hard. It’s been a lot of work and a lot of training. Taking Lasse on the road hasn’t been that easy. We’re traveling from hotel to hotel. But I think all this trouble will be worth it in the end.”
Schleper returned to the World Cup circuit last season after taking two years off for the birth of her son and recovery from knee surgery. Some athletes may have called it a career at that point, but not Schleper.
“I love the sport, and I didn’t feel like I’d accomplished all that I could accomplish,” Schleper said. “My husband was really supportive.”
“We both wanted to go racing, and there was not a real reason why we wouldn’t,” said her husband, Federico Gaxiola, a native of Mexico and a longtime Vail visitor. “I couldn’t have lived knowing that we could have done it and we didn’t.”
Gaxiola has been Schleper’s pillar of support as they barnstorm the World Cup tour with Lasse, who has already been to 17 countries.
Schleper admits that it took her a while to get back into race mode last year. But she came on strong at the end of last season, winning an FIS giant slalom race in Austria and the Nor-Am Cup giant slalom at Lake Placid, N.Y. She skied quite well at the national championships at Alyeska in Alaska, scoring a silver in the slalom and nearly winning the GS before crashing near the end of her second run.
This season, her results have been encouraging. She earned FIS points with a 24th-place finish at Soelden, Austria, and skied well in Levi, Finland, but was disqualified.
“Things are looking up, and I think we’re doing the right things,” Schleper said. “We’re trying to peak for the Olympics. It just seems to be escalating to that point, so I hope things stay on track.”
Watch Sarah race
Sarah Schleper will race at the Aspen Winternational FIS Alpine World Cup this weekend on Aspen Mountain. Racing can be viewed from grandstands at the finish area or from the side of the course near Ruthie’s restaurant.
Women’s giant slalom run 1: 10 a.m. Saturday.
Women’s giant slalom final: 1 p.m. Saturday.
Women’s slalom run 1: 10 a.m. Sunday.
Women’s slalom final: 1 p.m. Sunday.
New star in town
If Schleper continues to ski well, she will secure a place in her fourth Games. Her Olympic results have steadily gotten better since her 1998 debut in Nagano, where she finished 22nd in the slalom. She placed 21st at Park City in the GS in 2002 and 10th in the slalom at Sestriere in 2006.
One of Schleper’s earliest wins of her career was at the site of the upcoming Olympics, at the Whistler Cup in 1994. She hasn’t raced there since.
“I have a great chance at medaling,” she said. “I’m training with the best girls right now. I’m training with the Italians, who I think are the fastest in GS. So I’m right on pace with them. I was training with Lindsey (Vonn) two days ago, and I was on pace with her, so things are looking good. I’m skiing fast.”
Vonn, who is the two-time reigning overall World Cup champion and widely considered the fastest woman skier in the world, is a Minnesota native who came to Vail as a young girl to train with Ski Club Vail. After being based out of Utah for several years, she returned to live in Vail and represent Vail Resorts this year with great fanfare as part of a sponsorship deal with the company.
For Schleper, that’s brought both happiness for Vonn and motivation for herself.
“I’m super proud of Lindsey,” Schleper said. “I’ve watched her since she was 7 years old, so I’ve seen her go through every step and how hard she’s working now. That’s really rewarding for her. I’m proud of her and proud to be her friend.
“But, at the same time, this is Vail, and I’m seeing her get all this attention, and I think it’s just making me more motivated to also put our town on the map and garner that attention and focus.”
Living in the present
At 30, Schleper is now the veteran of the team. Whereas once she would have kept her secrets to success to herself, she now readily shares them with teammates.
Schleper has been training at Copper, Loveland and Vail with her teammates over the last couple of weeks. She raved about the upgraded training course on Golden Peak on her home mountain.
She’s heading into the races this weekend in Aspen feeling good about her skiing. This will be her last World Cup race in Colorado — 14 years after she debuted on the circuit at a stop in Vail.
“It’s weird about ski racing,” Schleper said. “You don’t know why you’re skiing slow sometimes and you don’t know why you’re fast. I think I’ve just done all the right things this year. I’ve done all of my training. I’ve been eating right. I’ve been drinking a a lot of water. We’ve been training in all kinds of different conditions on full length courses. I’ve been super-focused.”
Even though she says this is her last year racing, she’s not putting all-or-nothing pressure on herself this year.
“I’m trying to have fun, to go enjoy every second, because I know I’m never going to get this time back,” she said. “I know I’m going to miss it a ton, so I’m just trying to enjoy every second and not push ahead into the future, which I think is hard to do most of the time in your career. You’re like, ‘One more day.’ This year, I’ve just been so focused on staying present and trying to enjoy everything.”
Schleper, whose one World Cup win came in a slalom race in Switzerland in 2005, said her career will have been a success, no matter what happens this year.
Lasse already speaks Spanish, English and a little bit of German. Apparently, he’s already quite the skier, too. Father and son went up the Chair 15 earlier this week.
“We went all the way to the side where the rope is, and there was powder right next to the rope,” Federico Gaxiola said. “When I got down, he was like, ‘More powder, more powder, more powder!’”
Schleper and her husband plan to live in the Vail Valley after she is done with racing. Schleper’s dad, Buzz, runs Buzz’s Ski Shop, an institution in Vail Village. Her brother, Johnny, plays guitar in the well-known local band the MTHDS, and also works at the shop. Her youngest brother, Hunter, is an up-and-coming ski racer who has landed a place on the U.S. Ski Team’s development squad.
She jokes with the tuners at the shop that she’s going to come back and be their boss. More likely, she’ll be doing something else — she wants to expand their family further, and run some ski camps as well.
“My heart’s here,” Schleper said. “My husband and I are going to live here as soon as I’m done skiing. I know everybody in town, all the businesses. I’ve been terrorizing these streets since I was born, pretty much. That’s never going to stop, hopefully. Now Lasse’s going to start.”
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