LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland – Two-time Olympian Sarah Schleper took the first-run lead in slalom Saturday and then laid down the fastest second run as she powered her way to her first World Cup victory and led two other U.S. skiers into the top 10 at the World Cup finals.Schleper, who was second at World Cup finals a year ago on what will be the Olympic course in Sestriere, Italy, finished in 1 minute, 29.13 seconds. Olympic, World and World Cup champion Janica Kostelic of Croatia – who was 0.08 seconds back after the first run and whose father set the second course, was second in 1:29.47. Vail’s Lindsey Kildow finished seventh (1:30.43) with Julia Mancuso in eighth place (1:30.76). Kristina Koznick was 16th while Resi Stiegler crashed out after holding the lead midway through her final run.Schleper tore up the top of the course as she surged to her first victory. She was 0.39 ahead of Kostelic’s time at the first interval, 0.25 up at the second interval and 0.34 at the finish.She was mobbed by her screaming teammates in a wild finish scene. The performance pushed her over the 400-point level for the first time and boosted Schleper to fifth in the slalom standings.
“I’ve always wanted to win a World Cup and now I’m a winner. It’s probably one of the coolest feelings I’ve ever had,” said Schleper, a two-time U.S. slalom champ and the silver medalist in SL at the 1997 Junior World Championships.”Between runs, I just tried to stay cool. I didn’t want to stress,” Schleper said. “Janica said to me before the run, at the start, ‘Is this your first time leading after the first run? Your first time in the hot seat?’ I don’t know if she was trying to psyche me. I had so many butterflies.”But it was a good course for me, a tight second run, and good snow … and everything worked out.”Coach Trevor Wagner said, “Sarah’s learned to deal with pressure and she did an amazing job. She skied a great first run. …”She’s always been such a great skier, with such great speed, and she’s finally found the technique and everything’s coming together, so we can do some real damage now with her speed.” Kostelic, he said, “tried to play the game and Schlep showed who’s who. They (the Croatians) thought having her father set the course was going to seal the deal. He sets very closed gates – very close together, 8.25 to 8.5 meters in places – we seldom see that tight a course and, obviously, they set it for her.”
“But Sarah handled it – the pressure, the course … all of it, and Janica and all of them were very gracious in the finish, coming over to shake her hand and all. It’s an incredible day,” Wagner said.The course, he said, “is flat medium, a mini-pitch at the bottom – just three or four gates, and the rest is rolling terrain, fast to medium terrain. Sarah was incredible the way she handled it.”Schleper said the injected snow had conditions similar to when she was second in the first run at Zagreb, Croatia, in January and a year ago at Sestriere when she was second at World Cup finals in Italy, and when she had a pair of top 5s in Zwiesel, Germany, last season, too.”It’s a short, pretty easy hill for slalom,” the winner said, “But, they injected the snow (with water to make it icy and hard), and so it’s usually rough, not perfectly smooth, and that’s been good for me. I don’t know what but the little roughness helps.”She added, “Rossignol’s got me a new ski that’s a lot more stable and the coaches have worked with me on picking up a better line, and I trained with (Finn slalom ace) Kalle Palander, and all of it’s come together.”She also said a European doctor recommended by U.S. Ski Team surgeon Dr. Richard Steadman has helped her with chronic back problems. “I couldn’t bend over for two week but now I can touch my toes. I’m so much looser and it really helped me,” Schleper said.The women complete their season Sunday with a giant slalom and the Americans will return for the U.S. Alpine Championships March 29-April 5 at Mammoth Mountain, Calif.Vail, Colorado