Vail’s Schleper leaning toward return
VAIL – Last November, Vail ski racer Sarah Schleper was pretty sure she’d be retired by now.
But she’s found that when you love skiing, you love to compete and you’re still fast – in fact, the fastest mom on skis – it’s hard to step away from racing.
The 31-year-old Vail native is leaning heavily toward returning to competition next year after placing 14th and 16th in the Olympic giant slalom and slalom, respectively, in Vancouver.
“I think just the momentum and the results were rewarding, and I realized I could still maybe make a living off it,” Schleper said. “I think it would be too hard to give up the lifestyle of skiing and skiing for work, which is every ski bum’s dream.”
This was a comeback season for Schleper, who returned to the World Cup circuit last year after taking two years off for the birth of her son, Lasse, as well as knee surgery.
“I think my comeback was really successful so far, and I’m on the upswing,” Schleper said. “And if I decide to continue, I think I have a lot going for me right now.”
She earned her first top-10 finish in five years in the World Cup giant slalom in Are in December. In January, skiing from 37th, she stormed to a top five finish in the Lienz slalom. She had struggled with slalom until that point, and even had considered quitting the discipline.
But by the end of the year, she was in the top 25 in both slalom and GS. Being in that top tier means that Schleper can be among the first competitors in the race order – a key advantage.
“That’s why I kind of want to continue, because I’ve worked these two years really hard,” Schleper said. “Now I’m finally up in the seed, and it’s hard to let it go.”
The top-25 finishes also mean that Schleper qualifies next year for the U.S. Ski Team’s “A team,” its top-level team, and her travel expenses will be paid for. This year, Schleper competed on the “B team,” and had to pay her own way.
Schleper’s family – husband Federico Gaxiola de la Lama and son Lasse – travel with Schleper during the ski season. Much of their extended family – including father Buzz, who runs Buzz’s Ski Shop in Vail; brother Johnny, who plays guitar for local band the MTHDS; and brother Hunter, an up-and-coming ski racer – was at Whistler to watch Schleper compete.
The leadup to the Olympics focused lots of attention on Schleper, something she partly attributes to the “trickle down” effect of teammate Lindsey Vonn’s success. Schleper was featured in the “Truth of Motion” documentary, which was broadcast in primetime on NBC shortly before the Olympics.
It was Schleper’s fourth Olympics. She and the rest of the technical-events team came to the Opening Ceremonies, then went to Jackson Hole in Wyoming, where they trained for a week, before returning to Canada.
From Jackson, Schleper watched teammates Vonn and Julia Mancuso go 1-2 in the downhill.
“I predicted it the morning after the training run,” Schleper said. “I said Lindsey-Julia, 1-2. I have witnesses. For Lindsey to overcome all the pressure she’s had, to come away with the win, I think that’s a big accomplishment. I’m proud to be her teammate. And it was cool to see Jules get a medal, too.”
Just before the Olympic slalom, Schleper smacked her chin on a gate. She wasn’t wearing a bar because she couldn’t find one the night before.
“I was smelling burned flesh, or burning, and it was really weird,” Schleper said “I felt my chin and blood was everywhere.”
A doctor put a bandage on the wound, and, between the first and second runs, she got five stitches. The injury actually might have helped her focus, she said.
A top-five finish in the slalom may have been possible if she hadn’t made a mistake in the second run, she said.
“The Olympics are always kind of tough, but they’re so much fun to go to,” Schleper said. “It’s a reward, and I got to go with my teammates Hailey (Duke) and Megan (McJames), who had never gone before. For me, to experience my fourth Olympics with their first Olympics was really fun.”
After leaving Whistler, she competed in the World Cup finals at Garmisch Partenkirchen, and then returned stateside for the National Championships at Lake Placid, where she won the national title in slalom.
She’s now 80 percent sure she’ll return for next year. In the meantime, she’s relaxing here in her hometown. Last weekend, she was racing with younger competitors in FIS races at Vail and Beaver Creek.
She’ll stay here through the end of the ski season, and will be honored along with other local Olympians at the Spring Back to Vail concerts later this month. She’ll then go to Mexico to surf for a few weeks, as she does each year. In June, she’ll make a decision on whether to return to racing.
“I just want to wait until June and see what the team’s doing and see how I feel,” Schleper said.
Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 970-748-2929 or firstname.lastname@example.org.