Vail’s Schleper ready for Vancouver
VAIL – Hunter Schleper apparently doesn’t forget.
As Hunter, 18, and his older sister, Sarah, 30, were working this offseason for their upcoming skiing seasons, basketball became part of the routine. We’re not talking horse, but one-on-one.
“He still holds a grudge,” Sarah Schleper said Wednesday in the middle of her dad’s store in Vail Village. “It was the last hockey match we ever played because I never wanted to lose to him, but we had a pond outside our door. We’d play hockey out there and I beat him pretty bad when he was still quite young, probably 12. He was so mad. He’s a red head so his temper is ridiculous. Ever since then, he’s never let me win a game. I had to earn every point I got.”
And that definitely sums up Schleper as she heads to Vancouver, British Columbia, today for her fourth appearance at the Winter Olympics with Friday’s Opening Ceremonies and her races in the giant slalom Feb. 24 and the slalom Feb. 26.
Her road back after a knee injury and subsequent marriage to Frederico De Gaxiola and the birth of their son, Lasse, 2, has been rough and well-documented one.
While she talked Wednesday as customers came into Buzz’s, she seemed content with her life, but still hungry to do more, happy with her experience being on such a big stage, yet excited about the upcoming competition and philosophical about her chances but cautiously optimistic.
“I think this has always been my chosen path, my lifestyle,” she said. “It doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary. But it was a big goal of mine to make it to Vancouver. It’s huge after coming back from motherhood and because of my injuries, too. Having the season I’ve had this year has been a dream come true. I’m proud to be representing the U.S., and especially Vail.”
Getting to this point has been a family effort, in every sense. As she said when she made the team last month, Schleper made it clear Wednesday that she wouldn’t be going to Vancouver if it were not for her husband.
And the whole gang will be coming to Vancouver – Buzz and his family, her mom, the Gaxiolas and her brothers, Hunter and Johnny, and of course, Lasse, who just celebrated his second birthday. (Yes, Lasse’s on skis already, but his alpine interests have been temporarily derailed by the gifts of cool toy cars for said birthday.)
Family life has also changed her approach to ski racing in many ways. First, there’s the fact that Schleper, Gaxiola and young Lasse hit the road together as the World Cup journeys through North America and Europe.
While North American racers are on the road for a good four months of the season while the tour is in Europe, Schleper feels that home is wherever Frederico and Lasse are, which she considers an advantage. And that has led to some postcard moments, like when she finished fifth in slalom in Lienz, Austria, and young Lasse was pretty stoked.
“I could see him every time I got to the finish,” Schleper said. “As soon as I got to the finish, I’d look for him and wave and Lasse would wave back. After my race run, he wanted to stand in the finish corral where all the racers are, and everyone was trampling over him, but he was so pumped to be with the racers and watching the race with me. That’s been a total trip.”
And being a mother and wife tends to put things into a different perspective.
“When you’re 18, all you care about is ski racing and how you’re going and this race is the end of the world if you don’t do well,” she said. “I’ve been around that block and I know it’s just another day and just another race, either way. Even if I do well, my family is there and we’re going to enjoy it. It’s still the same. We’re a family and we’re having fun, living this lifestyle that we’ve been so fortunate to have.”
At 30, Schleper’s been on the U.S. Ski Team for half her life. When she started in 1995, she recalled that her slalom skis were as long as the size of current super-G skis.
“My teammates, they’re like 20, 21 and they’re just making fun of me,” Schleper joked. “I watch old videos and I just laugh because it’s changed so much. It’s become a lot more beautiful to watch because it’s cleaner and smoother. It’s really become a beautiful sport.”
When she’s in film sessions with her teammates, she questions them if she’s skiing “modern enough,” with regard to her technique.
But being the “oldest” on the women’s team – Bode Miller is 32 – and becoming a mother does not make Vancouver to be a last hurrah of sorts. In fact, Schleper said that she’s actually leaning – no final decision will come until the end of the season – toward coming back in 2010-11.
While as she noted accurately Wednesday, being an Olympic newbie didn’t seem to hurt Ted Ligety in 2006 when he won combined gold, she’s been to Nagano, Japan, in 1998, Salt Lake in 2002 and Torino, Italy, in 2006.
She has dealt wit the media glare and the hype that comes with the Games, and her results at the Olympics have improved each time – 22nd in slalom in 1998, 21st in GS in 2002 and 10th in slalom in 2006.
It’s also worth mentioning that Schleper skied for 10 years before getting her World Cup win in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, in 2005.
Like a runner building his or her base in distance, Schleper has logged her miles.
“It starts when you’re young doing thousands and thousands of gates,” she said. “I had this coach Eric Saylor, and he was all about repetition. But then when you get closer to the Games, it’s less is more, trusting that you’ve put in the work. It’s not like a school project where you can procrastinate to the last week.”
That work and savvy seems to be kicking into gear. In addition to fifth in Leinz, where she got to celebrate with Lasse, she was eight in GS in Are, Sweden, in December. She’s also been in the top-10 regularly in Europa Cups and Nor-Ams against skiers who are a good 10 years younger than her.
Getting down to business
Schleper plans to enjoy the Opening Ceremonies Friday – the Parade of Nations is always a blast.
“Like my dad always tells me to really enjoy this because once it’s gone, it’s gone. I’m going to take this fourth Olympics to my heart and try to enjoy it as best I can, try to make it a little party.”
And then it’s time to get to work. She and the rest of the American technical skiers head back down to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for five days of camp during the first week of the games.
(If you happen to be in the area, for a break, though, The Methods – Johnny Schleper’s band -will be presenting The Olympic Pre-Party with Celebrity Guest Sarah Schleper on Feb. 18 at the Mangy Moose.)
But aside from that foray into dance, this will be the time that Schleper readies herself for the roughly four minutes of Olympic competition. She knows that it’s pretty much lunacy to try to predict an outcome of a World Cup or Olympic race. There are issues of weather, whether the skis are running well, what the snow is like and so on, and so it more about pushing herself to the maximum on those runs.
“That’s the thing with ski racing,” Schleper said. “You do all that training so you can do well in any condition, on any slope, any course, hoping you did your homework.”
While World Cup points say she has a better shot in GS than in slalom, Schleper feels a medal is possible in either.
She has thought what it might be like to win the ultimate – a gold medal.
“I imagine it,” Schleper said. “I imagine how this can be a positive for all the people around me, not just myself. What can I do with this opportunity? Am I worthy of this? I have a saying, ‘If you’re not enough without a gold medal, you’re not enough with one.’
“I think if I were to win in this Olympics, I would feel that it was appropriate time. I’ve worked really hard. It’s been a battle. If I didn’t win either, everything’s OK.”
That said, Schleper’s skied at Whistler just once, and as a 14-year-old J3 with Ski Club Vail, she won the Whistler Cup in slalom.
“My record is 1-for-1,” she joked. “It would be nice to keep that going.”
Like Hunter, Sarah doesn’t forget either.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or email@example.com.
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