Nationals coming back to Winter Park | VailDaily.com

Nationals coming back to Winter Park

Vail Daily/Dominique Taylor

WINTER PARK – What took you so long?

The U.S. Alpine National Championships are returning to Colorado for the first time since 1994, the United Stated Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) announced late Tuesday night, awarding the event to Winter Park March 31-April 3, 2011.

And local racers are thrilled about the news that they will be skiing on what is as close to home snow as they can get.

“It’s been so long since nationals have been in Colorado,” said Sarah Schleper, whose first appearance at nationals was in 1995 in Park City, Utah, just one year after they were last in Winter Park. “It’s great because we have to travel a lot less, which is good for my family.

“It’s a side hill with a lot of dimensions. I’ve always trained there with Erich Sailer, my mentor. I’m excited.”

The USSA said in a press release that the likes of Julia Mancuso, Ted Ligety and Andrew Weibrecht as well as Vail’s Lindsay Vonn are “expected” to compete. That said, it’s a long season from the opener in Soelden, Austria, in October until nationals in the spring.

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Vonn understandably didn’t compete in the 2010 nationals in Lake Placid, N.Y., having won World Cup titles in the overall, downhill, super-G and combined, not to mention gold and bronze medals at the Olympics. There are also the inevitable health issues which arise from a long season.

What is certain is that nationals are a chance for up-and-coming skiers to make a name for themselves competing against veteran U.S. Ski Team members in front of the USSA staff with an eye toward advancement in the ranks.

Schleper was an unknown until a bronze medal in slalom in 1996 in Sugarloaf, Maine. By 2001, when she’d seized the spotlight at nationals, winning her second national title, there was another local kid getting her feet wet that year in Big Mountain, Montana. Then known as Lindsay Kildow, Vonn, a 16-year-old, recorded two top-10s in the speed events.

Three years later, she won national titles in super-G and slalom on consecutive days at nationals in Alyeska, Alaska, and was on her way.

New faces

It’s the younger racers who will be trying to break out when the U.S. Ski Team of all levels meets for giant slalom, super-G and slalom in Winter Park. We return to Schleper in 1996 in Sugarloaf, Maine.

“(Sarah) was young. She wasn’t expected to podium,” said her father, Buzz. “That was an important finish for her. That definitely turned some heads. Now, it isn’t as important because she’s cemented her place on the team.

“It’s more important for the guys on the Development Team. It all depends on how they do during the season at Nor-Ams and FIS races and then how they finish at nationals. That can bump you up a level. That is very important for Hunter.”

That would be Hunter Schleper, Sarah’s youngest brother, who is hoping to bounce back from a left-knee injury. After getting his knee fixed, young Schleper spent a lot of time getting that joint back up to full strength, but 2010-11 is the year he hopes he proves himself.

He’ll resume racing when the snow flies, but he knows that nationals at Winter Park will be the moment to be peaking. Good performances at nationals can often translate in promotion from the development team up to the C-Team or B-Team.

“Hopefully, in my first race, I go out and hammer one down, so that I can show that I haven’t been slacking the last two years,” Hunter said.

Now 19, Schleper is pretty clear about his goals for the upcoming season.

“I want to win the Nor-Am overall, so I can be on the World Cup with my sister,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Either way, both Schlepers want to be healthy come spring and nationals at Winter Park. Born 11 years apart, Sarah and Hunter train together in the offseason and have skied endless hours with each other, but they’ve never competed in the same event.

In 2008, Hunter made his debut at nationals, but Sarah was off the circuit as her son, Lasse, had just been born. Last year, Schleper was back at nationals, winner her fifth national title, this one in slalom, but Hunter had the knee injury.

Battling the vets

While not much will be on the line for Sarah at nationals – though she probably wouldn’t mind a sixth championship, she wants to continue her role as a mentor to younger skiers on the team. Having spent half of her life on the U.S. Ski Team, she’s a treasure trove of information.

“Doing well at nationals early in my career was huge,” she said. “I realized at that point that I had the talent. The question was whether I was going to seize the moment. It’s important for the younger kids to compete with the veterans. It inspires the younger kids. It gets the spirit of American ski racing going.”

Mixing the veterans and the newcomers at nationals has an added bonus for the newbies. When racers like Schleper and Vonn are in the women’s field at nationals or Ligety and Weibrecht on the men’s side, the FIS points for such a competition are lowered.

In plain English, if you’re an up-and coming racer, finishing well in a field with World Cup veterans increases the value of your finish when it comes to world rankings. That is some serious motivation.

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” said Edwards’ Abby Ghent, who is on the Women’s Developmental Team. “Everything’s sparking the fires. I’m finding motivation everywhere. (Nationals) are probably the only races I’ll be at where all U.S. Team coaches are there. Getting your game up for that is really important.”

No flight plans

And then there’s home snow. U.S. Nationals were held in Winter Park for three straight years from 1992-94. According to Tom Kelly, the USSA vice president of communications, nationals had been held in Crested Butte as well as at Copper Mountain before that. But it’s been 16 years since Colorado has hosted.

Though nationals aren’t being held on Golden Peak at Vail, just about every local competitive skier has raced at Winter Park. The resort hosts the J4 (11-13-year-olds) Junior Olympics annually, and also is the site of numerous Nor-Am and FIS races.

“I’ve skied there a bunch with racing and training,” Hunter Schleper said. “It should be a huge advantage. Not too many people who don’t live in Colorado have skied there.”

There’s also the travel factor. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Vail to Winter Park, as opposed to going to Alaska last year. A tough journey under any circumstances to Anchorage, Sarah Schleper nearly missed last year’s event because nearby Mt. Redoubt was erupting.

“I know I’m looking forward to racing, rather than traveling,” she said. “I live for the racing. I can’t get enough.”

Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or cfreud@vaildaily.com.