One in a series of interviews with U.S. Olympic team athletes who are also parents as they prepare for the Winter Games in Vancouver. The conversations will focus on how these elite athletes juggle training and their duties as moms and dads.
Sarah Schleper stands alone on the U.S. Ski Team. She’s the only female member of the team born in the 1970s. Her advanced age — 30 — isn’t the only reason to be rooting for Sarah. She’s also a new mother — her son Lasse just turned two. And she’s a bit of a comeback kid. This is her fourth Olympic Games. To make the Olympic team this time, Sarah had to overcome a torn left ACL. While rehabilitating the knee injury in in Mexico in 2006, she fell in love with her future husband, Federico Gaxiola de la Lama. They married in 2007. ParentDish recently spoke with Schleper. An edited version of the conversation follows.
ParentDish: Tell us about your son, Lasse.
Sarah Schleper: He speaks a lot of Spanish and a little English. He’s started skiing already. He loves to eat. He loves to sleep. He’s the perfect little kid. I feel really blessed to have this little guy.
PD: Lasse … a family name?
SS: Not even close. My husband is Mexican. Before we got pregnant, we discussed names that would work in Spanish and English. Names that were original and easy to say. Lasse met all our criteria. And, one of my favorite skiers is a Norwegian named Lasse — Lasse Kjus.
PD: What’s your first memory on skis?
SS: I got skis for my second birthday. I’m not sure I remember. There is a picture, though. I begged my parents to take me skiing.PD: What’s a good reason to start a child in skiing?
SS: It’s one of the greatest sports I’ve ever done. It is the greatest — obviously. You feel so free, almost like flying, floating down the mountain. When I was growing up as an athlete, I never got involved in drugs, parties or any of that stuff. I stayed focused on sports. It gave me something to strive for.
PD: There are sports parents who are interested and others who cross the line and become pushy. In your mind, what’s the difference?
SS: I grew up with the mentality that having parents around is good. My dad has been one of my best friends growing up and during my career. Having him around to encourage me and push me in skiing has been anything but a hindrance. Some people, though, have a lot of trouble with that and are embarrassed by their parents. It’s a give and take. I just read [tennis star] Andre Agassi’s book. He talks about how ruthless his dad was with him for tennis. Then you see he won grand slams. [Olympic skier] Lindsey Vonn’s dad was also very strict with her and her skiing. I think it is kind of a recipe: You have these pushy parents who make great athletes. So I wonder if there is a balance.
PD: So, now you’ll be figuring this out with your son.
SS: I think about it every day. I don’t know what I want to do. On my Facebook page, I put a video up. We had been teaching him how to “hockey stop.” [turn and stop on skis]. He’s been doing it just in the shoes. He runs around and then turns sideways. Then I tell him that’s what you’re going to do in your skis. We took him out [on skis] and he actually did it. And you hear me screaming in the background: “YOU DID IT! YOU DID IT!” I sound like one of those ridiculous parents totally stoked on their kid. I don’t want to push him into something. I want to give him the opportunity to be a professional athlete if that’s what he wants to do. But I don’t know how I am going to handle it, really. My husband and I talk about this all the time. It’s an ongoing conversation. I hope our natural parenting skills will take over and be the right way.
PD: You give a lot of credit to your dad, Buzz, who owned a ski shop in Vail, Colorado, when you were growing up.
SS: My dad raised me and my brother a lot of years by himself. He has been such a great influence in my life. Now that I am a parent, I see all the sacrifices he did. He always put his kids number one. I just feel like that contributed a lot to our success. His support was the one major ingredient to my success.
PD: You’re superstitious about numbers. You’ll let a chair lift go by if it’s not the right combination. What’s up with that?
SS: I don’t know. It’s a little obsessive compulsive, though I don’t take it too far. I like to make little problems out of the numbers. Like today my father came over to training with me and we rode up on chair 1-1-0. So I’m like, wow, first place in 2010. Stupid stuff like that. I think my dad started me off with that.
PD: Does it feel any different getting to the bottom of the hill at age 30 than it did at 20?
SS: I’d like to say no but the truth is I do feel different. Every day there is a little something with my body that I’m dealing with. When I was younger it was easier to put in the runs and hours. Now I’m always managing back issues. My knees sometimes hurt. My muscles get tighter than they used to. At this point in my career, I know that sometimes you deal with pain. It’s worth it. Just keep going.
PD: You have a creative way of raising money for your training — a Web store where you sell your used gear. What’s new in the Schlepstore?
SS: I have a good selection of race skis and downhill suits. All sorts of ski team gear. I’m sure I’ll have some Olympic gear there after the Olympics. It’s kind of an outlet for me to sell stuff so I can fund my skiing. It’s been stressful financially for me and my family. So I needed to do something to make a little extra cash to feed and diaper my kid.
PD: And people think skiing is a glamorous and lucrative life.
SS: Of course, I enjoy it. I love traveling and seeing the world. That’s the perk. At the same time, I don’t think a lot of people could put in the work I do. I am working out my body every single day, pushing it to the limit. I’m taking on the high altitude. My lungs are burning. My legs are burning. That’s the dirty work. It pays off in many ways, including being at the top of the mountain when the sun comes up.
PD: What’s next after Vancouver?
SS: My season isn’t completely over. I qualified for the World Cup finals for the top 25 in the world. I qualified in both my disciplines — Giant slalom and slalom. So I am going back to Germany for those races. And then I come back for U.S. Nationals. Then my season is over and I haven’t decided whether I am going to retire or continue racing another year. It’s really hard for me to give up this job and think about the future. I want to have another child and expand the family. I also don’t think I’m done skiing. I love it too much. It will be a really hard decision come spring.
PD: You credit your husband for giving you the option, yes?
SS: I am so fortunate my husband is so patient. He is such a good father. He has that Latin macho blood but [being a stay-home dad] doesn’t bother him. We have a really great balance and a really great family dynamic.
PD: One thing that Federico does that most dads wouldn’t?
SS: He changes diapers. My dad would never do that.
PD: A personal goal in Vancouver?
SS: I really want to do my best performance that I’ve ever done in the Olympics Games. Tenth is my best so far. Ultimately, I just want to be as prepared as I can be and ski as fast as I can in every run. Really relaxed and skiing fast.