Schleper hopes for third Olympics
VAIL – To hear Sarah Schleper describe her favorite mountain-biking trail, it’s not difficult to tell that she’s a professional ski racer. The trail is Son of Middle Creek, a technical singletrack in Vail that begins with a gradual climb through aspen groves, meanders upward into a couple of small-chain ring slogs until a fast, narrow descent full of switchbacks and rocks. Or, according to Schleper …”It’s a little super-G at the beginning,” she said. “It gets turnier and sort of goes slalom in the middle and GS at the end. I love it. If I can’t ski, I practice on my bike.”
Schleper, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Ski Team, has ridden the trail many times this summer as part of her self-driven pre-Olympic season training regiment. OK, so it’s not that regimented. Schleper just loves to ride her bike. Even if she’s got back surgery looming in her near future. But, what better way to get the most out of her surgery than a good, solid endo the day before an operation?”I was biking with (best friend) Sunny a few weeks ago, and I told her I’d wait at the top,” Schleper said. “I realized I was on the downhill already, and I wasn’t focused. I hit this log and went ‘boom.’ I had scabs on both elbows and knees and was sitting in the trail. I was supposed to go into surgery the next day. But I was like, ‘I gotta go riding, because I know I’m not going to be able to ride afterwards.’ I knew when I went in, they’d say, ‘What the hell were you doing?’ But it was fine. They were taking out (a herniated disc) anyway.”Schleper’s skiing career has been plagued by back pain for a number of years. Having tried several homeopathic treatments, she has always been able to ski past the pain, most successfully last spring, when she landed her first World Cup victory at Lenderheide, Switzerland. Back surgery seemed like something she could continue to avoid, until one decisive incident this summer.”I was totally debilitated,” she said. ” I was in Minnesota, where my dad has a summer place. I was doing some training on my own – vertical jumps in this field by myself. Suddenly, I was in so much pain. It took me an hour to get back to the car. I flew straight back to Vail and had the surgery. I feel great now. I decided to go with it so I didn’t have a flare-up come closer to the Olympics.”
The OlympicsSchleper is no stranger to the Olympics. She’s already got two under her belt. Her results were nothing to write home about, however. She’s the first to sum them up as “not very good.” With a 22nd place in slalom in Nagano, Japan, and a 21st place in Salt Lake City’s Olympic giant slalom, Schleper is prepared to prove that her upward pattern of results is going to continue.”With the Olympics, at least in my first two experiences, you try and treat it just like any other race,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the way to go. You have to treat it like it is the Olympics and really kind of get into it. When I was younger, I’d try to race like I trained. But training and racing, no matter how hard you try to pretend, they’re not the same. You just can’t make it feel the same. Once I started realizing racing is racing and training is training, I started skiing a lot better. I think I’ll try that approach with the (2006) Olympics.”
Schleper said this approach is what finally gave her the World Cup victory last season in Switzerland. Since the 2002 Games, she has also landed around 25 top-10 victories. There’s also the venue. Schleper has taken second place twice in Sestriere, Italy, where the Olympic alpine ski events will be held this February, but doesn’t want to jinx herself by admitting too close a bond with the venue.”I love that hill,” she said of Sestriere. “It’s steep, which for me, is great. I’m not as big as some of the girls on the World Cup – they’re close to 200 pounds and I’m 140, so it’s definitely to my advantage. But, I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, this is my hill’ or something, because you never can tell. Racing is racing.”Schleper might have to wait as late as January to know if she will be among the U.S. representatives at the Olympics this February. But if she lands a top-five result early in the season (the first World Cup event is Oct. 22 in Soelden, Austria), she’ll get an automatic in. The U.S. women’s team as a whole is as strong as it’s ever been, and Schleper feels confident that Julia Mancuso, Resi Stiegler, fellow Vail protégé Lindsey Kildow and herself will be shifting on their skis at the Olympic starting gate this February.
‘Shrine’ days”It helps to have your teammates doing really well, because then you go, ‘I can do this,'” Schleper said. “We all started punching in there last season. We each have our shrine days. All my teammates are supportive, even though we’re racing against each other.”Schleper’s first Olympics fell on her golden birthday – Feb. 19, 1998 – and since then, the Games have seemed to her like just a part of her birthright.”My first Olympics, I was there to have fun and enjoy the whole experience of it. It’s what you dream about as a kid. It’s just the Disneyland of your sport. Since I’ve been on this path since I was so young, it just seems like it was always meant to be part of my path. It’s a dream come true to go there. There’s just a lot of magic to it.”Shauna Farnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado