Hunter Schleper wins pair of FIS GS, slalom races in Alaska
VAIL — Coach Bruce Knoepfel recently received a surprising piece of news. One of his prodigy students, at one time a top-ranked junior who was training with Knoepfel when he was awarded Alpine Domestic Coach of the Year, was hoping to make a return to the sport of ski racing.
“It was always a call I hoped I would get,” Knoepfel said.
And with that, the comeback of Hunter Schleper had begun.
The Schleper name is a familiar one among ski racing fans here in Vail. Earlier this season, it was 24-year-old Hunter’s older sister, Sarah Schleper, who was making a comeback after earning Mexican citizenship and a spot in the starting gate at the World Championships.
To ready herself for her own comeback, she enlisted in the help of Hunter, someone she had always thought of as a true natural.
“He coached me for a little while, he got me to the next level and we had a lot of fun,” she said.
For Sarah, being on skis means having a lot of fun. It hasn’t always been that way for Hunter, who has strayed away from alpine skiing and become an expert snowboarder and snowskater in recent years. But Hunter saw how much fun Sarah was having, got caught up in the atmosphere of the World Championships a bit and started to think about his own connection with ski racing a little.
“I think in coaching me, he started to feel a sense of belonging in the sport again,” Sarah said. “And I think watching me compete for another country and doing it my own way showed him there are always more possibilities.”
Now that Hunter Schleper is concentrating all his energy in the sport again, possibilities are indeed becoming a reality.
His first race season in six years began three weeks ago in Vermont. In his first slalom, he went from the 107th start position to finish seventh, winning the second run. On Friday, he won a pair of FIS-level GS races in Alyeska, Alaska, and on Saturday he won both FIS slalom races there.
“It’s been a wild change, but that’s kind of how life is,” he said.
After Alaska, he’ll head over to Scandinavia to finish out the race season.
“I feel he’s already surpassed where he was when he left off,” Knoepfel said. “We worked together for many years, and it’s great to see him back in the sport. His talent level is phenomenal, now he needs to work on strength.”
And that’s the plan for this summer, Hunter said.
“The thing that’s limiting me the most right now is muscle. I haven’t been in a gym in six years,” he said. “But I do feel fast for how weak I am,” he added with a laugh.
With support from Knoepfel and coaches J.J. Jensen and Duffy Daniels, Hunter was able to hit the ground running. But a little parental support can go a long way, as well, especially when your dad has as much enthusiasm for the sport as Buzz Schleper.
“Without my parents support it wouldn’t even be possible to try coming back,” Hunter said. “My dad was part of the fire that helped me get going again, without his drive and his passion for it I probably wouldn’t be doing it. It would just be too much of a challenge to try to come back, but since he’s backing me 100 percent it makes it possible.”
Buzz said the World Championships had the whole family taking a second look at ski racing, when as names such as Alexis Pinturault, Phil Brown and Dustin Cook once upon a time used to be on the results list alongside Hunter’s.
“Seeing guys Hunter’s age, that he used to beat, on the podium at the World Championships was a big motivating factor,” Buzz said.
Buzz put in a call to Rossignol skis, who are also backing Hunter now.
“He didn’t receive the support from Ski Club Vail we were hoping for, but he did receive a lot of support from Copper Mountain here, and out east with Burke and Stratton Mountain,” Buzz said. “It’s been fun following along and seeing how quickly he’s getting back. Next season should be exciting.”
You can track Hunter’s return to ski racing by following him on Facebook at facebook.com/hunterschleperathletepage.