VAIL, Colorado - World Cup ski racer Sarah Schleper spent the first 16 years of her life preparing for World Cup ski racing, and another 16 years later, she is retiring.
Vail native Schleper, 32, raced her last race Thursday in Lienz, Austria. She didn't qualify for a second run Thursday but did score World Cup points with a 23rd-place finish in Wednesday's giant slalom.
The four-time Olympian and oldest woman on the U.S. Ski Team had thought about retiring and felt that now was the right time. The mother of a 3-year-old son, Lasse, said she's hoping to expand her family with husband Federico Gaxiola and "hopefully have another kid, if we're fortunate."
Schleper said she was starting to feel both the physical and emotional effects of ski racing. She was starting to feel pain in her body after a hard day of training, and could tell it was harder and harder to bounce back after time off from training.
And as a mother, it was becoming harder and harder to be away from her son.
"When I wanted to focus my attention more on (Lasse) and his development, I also had to put in my time to train," Schleper said Thursday from Italy at around 11:30 p.m. local time. "As a mother, you want to put your child first, and as an athlete you have to put yourself first. ... I was struggling mentally with that."
Looking back on her career, Schleper said it was "definitely worth the ride," even as she looks back at the years she raced as a mother.
"Lasse is super easy-going," she said.
Schleper said Lasse loves skiing and loves racing, and she wants to give him the same opportunities that she had as a child to pursue ski racing, if that's what he chooses to do.
"I'm definitely going to let him decide what he wants to do," she said. "It's really important to give him the opportunity - I think a lot of great professional athletes were focused really young."
The end of a long career
Schleper had skied well in some American International Ski Federation (FIS) races in 2011, but had struggled in World Cup races recently. She either didn't finish or didn't qualify for a second run in all of the 2011-12 season's races except for Wednesday's giant slalom.
"I didn't get a lot of (giant slalom) races in, which I feel is my stronger event right now," Schleper said.
She never expected to be racing World Cup this long, either. After she had her son, she was focused on racing at the Vancouver Olympics and figured that would be it. Then she raced another World Cup season after that, including World Championships.
"I just felt it was time - I didn't want to keep dragging out the season," Schleper said. "It's the end of the year, and with Mikaela (Shiffrin) making the podium today, I think it was good timing, too - a changing of the guard."
Shiffrin, 16, said the entire women's U.S. Ski Team is sad to see Schleper leave. Shiffrin said she respects Schleper, who is twice her age, so much.
"She's so motivated and hard-working, and she knew it's time for her to be done with skiing and move on with her life," Shiffrin said. "Even though she won't be around as much, her spirit will stick around. I'm so thankful that I got a chance to ski with one of my biggest idols."
Schleper isn't sure what's next on her life agenda, but she's excited about the future. It's the first time in her life that she isn't totally focused on being an athlete.
"I'm kind of in unknown territory right now and it's a little bit scary," Schleper said. "But it's exciting and exhilarating. The future is wide open."
She knows that she and her family are moving back to the Vail Valley. Her husband will work in Beaver Creek at Sotheby's, and she hopes to find a job at Vail or Beaver Creek doing what she's so good and experienced at - skiing.
Her father, Buzz Schleper, owner of Buzz's Boards in Vail Village, can't wait to have his daughter around full-time again.
"It's not like I'm losing a ski racer," Schleper said. "I'm gaining a daughter and a grandson because they'll be here in Vail."
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.