A different sort of homecoming
There are no cheerleaders, no pom-poms, no marching bands or field goals. Still, the Chevy Truck Aspen Winternational women’s World Cup races (Nov. 28-Dec. 1) are a different sort of homecoming for Vail’s top female ski racers: Sarah Schleper and Lindsey Kildow.Now firmly lodged atop the ranks of the nation’s best female speed event skiers, Kildow made a name for herself as America’s new hope for success in super giant slalom and downhill when she finished sixth in the women’s combined event at the 2002 Park City Winter Olympics. At 17, the Ski Club Vail prodigy had claimed the best U.S. women’s finish in alpine racing of the ’02 Games. And her past two super-G races in Aspen, both Nor-Ams in 2001, were first and second place finishes.But in the harsh world of competitive skiing, past successes are meaningless in the face of upcoming challenges. Kildow admits that her coaches and teammates “don’t really care” that she fared surprising well in last year’s Olympics. And the women’s team as a whole seems focused on the rejuvenation of a women’s speed team that no longer boasts the marquee name of Picabo Street.Retired and aloof from the team, Street’s departure created more fanfare than Kildow’s success, but Street’s absence is making room for new leaders and new energy.”We’re looking to start a new generation without Picabo,” says U.S. Alpine Ski Team Director Jesse Hunt. “Kirsten Clark is definitely somebody who has shown she’s a leader, and certainly Katie Monahan brings tons of experience.”Perhaps because she is young, Kildow has yet to be mentioned among the leaders of her team despite her Olympic finish. But results are prime currency in the world of skiing, and Kildow has a new strategy to help build on her unique talents. This year Kildow will focus on speed events in an effort to score more top-30s and win more FIS points.”I think I’m mentally stronger and physically stronger,” says Kildow, who spent the summer weight training in Park City. “And (the Olympic) result has made me more confident. And as far as the general public, they’ve seen my face now so I’ve gotten out there a little bit.”Last year Kildow’s coaches sent her on a whirlwind second tour of the World Cup, entering her in every event in all four categories: downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom. Her years as a slalom racer on Minnesota’s Buck Hill, coupled with five years as a four-event racer out of Vail, have given her the unique ability to succeed in all four disciplines.”I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything in the technical events,” Kildow says, “but right now I’ve got to focus on getting a better starting position on the World Cup.”That challenge begins in Aspen, where Kildow will race in her first World Cup speed event of the season.Schleper risingClearly, Sarah Schleper loves to ski but she also loves to watch her teammates ski.When the rest of her female teammates left Soelden, Austria, after the World Cup giant slalom opener there, she stuck around to watch the men’s giant slalom competition.”Especially as a girl, the men’s races are fun to watch,” she says. “They’re a little faster, and it’s important to watch the men ski and try to learn from them.”A month later at Park City, men’s two-time silver medalist Bode Miller returned the favor. From his piste-side vantage point, Miller noticed that Schleper’s bindings were mounted over the center of her skis and that she might benefit from moving her bindings back a bit to allow her a more forward, aggressive stance.”Bode’s a dedicated fan,” says Schleper, who uses a Rossignol ski similar to Miller’s.Dedicated fans and a dedicated technical staff are exactly what Schleper needs, especially after “walking out” of her skis during the 2002 Olympic slalom. While she remains optimistic about the quality of her support staff, she and her coaches have time to experiment with her giant slalom bindings placement.”Bode’s unique, and he’s tested and tried a lot of different things that are working with the Rossignol gear,” says Hunt. “Certainly Sarah’s service people need to review anything of that nature. Information like that can be as devastating as helpful sometimes.”While her giant slalom gear is in flux, Schleper’s slalom gear and technique seem right in line. A sixth-place finish at the Nov. 21 slalom at the America’s Opener in Park City has once again marked her as America’s elite slalom skier heading into the Nov. 30 World Cup race in Aspen. And racing in Colorado has always been a special treat for Schleper, who will spend the rest of the ski year at a house in Innsbruck, Austria, with her boyfriend Craig Daniels.”This is one of my favorite times of year it’s fun to see all my friends and family again, and have them come to my races,” she says. “A lot of my ski team friend are from the East Coast, but Aspen is just an hour and a half away, so I get a lot of support from Vail.”Last year Schleper scored 12th place on the Aspen World Cup course. This year Schleper will have a week at home with her father, Buzz, and her two brothers before heading to Aspen, then on to Val d’Isre, France, for a slalom/giant slalom weekend Dec. 12-13.The key to a successful season, she says, is letting it ride through the flats and not over-skiing through straight sections. A stellar season last year (eight top 10s and a 10th place overall slalom ranking) has raised the bar now Schleper is aiming for the podium and an even better overall ranking.