Take two: Sarah Schleper ready to race
VAIL — It’s been a long time coming for Vail’s Sarah Schleper.
The FIS Alpine World Ski Championships are in Beaver Creek and Vail on home snow and she will finally be competing in the giant slalom.
“I am so excited for that,” Schleper, 35, said. “The lead-up, the anticipation is getting the better of me. Any day now.”
The 1999 Championships in Vail were meant to be her showcase, but she fractured her right tibial plateau in a giant slalom in Val D’Isere, France, on December 12, 1998. She was a spectator at Vail ’99, ironically writing daily columns for the Vail Daily.
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A 15-year career
Despite missing the 1999 Worlds, Schleper had a distinguished 15-year career with the U.S. Ski Team as a tech racer, highlighted by a World Cup Finals win in slalom in Leizerheide, Switzerland, on March 12, 2005.
She competed in four Olympics (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010) with her best finish (10th) coming in the Turino, Italy, slalom in 2006. Schleper was also on five Worlds teams and was seventh in the slalom in 2005.
Like any racer, she had comeback after comeback after injuries. In a funny moment, she had to think a little bit about which knee kept her out of the 1999 Worlds. (It was indeed her right knee, though she ended up doing her left later in her career.)
Schleper also came back as a mom after marrying Federico Gaxiola de la Lama and having their first child, Lasse Gaxiola, who turns 7 next week. The Schelper-Gaxiola family now includes Resi Gaxiola, 1, named after Sarah’s close friend on the U.S. Ski Team Resi Stiegler.
Schleper initially retired in December 2011 in Austria, taking a casual farewell run down the slopes in blue jeans. Lasse, then 4, got to ride part of the course with her down to the finish.
Nonetheless, the idea of coming back for next month’s Championships was already in the works. Huberto Von Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a racer with Mexican and Austrian citizenship, talked to Schleper about racing for Mexico in 2015. Since Schleper married Gaxiola, a Mexican citizen, the possibility was there.
The arduous process of becoming a Mexican citizen began in 2009 and became official in May of last year.
Schleper raced in giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria, and Aspen earlier this season.
“Dad and Mom were not used to rooting for Mexico,” Schleper joked of parents, Buzz and Lynn.
Schleper has no illusions about the Championships. Even in her dreams, she knows she’s not going to come from the back of the pack and stun the world by winning GS gold next month. That’s not the point of her participating in Worlds.
As a ski instructor now, Schleper wants to spread the world of skiing, a world that has given her so much joy. Along with Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who will again be racing at Worlds, Schleper wants to help build the Mexican team for the next generation.
“I’m more out to inspire the girls,” Schleper said. “It’s OK to go after a goal because you love it. That’s the big message I hope I’m spreading around. I’ve talked to moms who’ve told me, ‘You’re inspiring my daughter.’”
In an interesting twist of the times, Schleper, like her fellow World Cup racers, is adjusting to the newer GS skis, which have a wider turning radius than those she used throughout her career.
“If I’m doing it and figuring out an easier way, it’s easier for me to pass it on to younger kids,” Schleper said. “It’s a cool way to stay involved in the skiing community.”
Speaking of community, when Worlds comes to town, each school in Eagle County Schools adopts a nation, learning said country’s history and culture. Eagle Elementary School is now the unofficial Sarah Schleper Fan Club. She’s visited the school and looks forward to the youngsters cheering her on next month.
“It was a huge bummer,” Schleper said of missing 1999. “I was just starting to get in the swing of things. My split times in the race when I got hurt were right there with the leaders. It was fun to be at the Championships, but it was hard to watch the U.S. Ski Team struggle and not be there to try to turn it around.”
While she will be racing for Mexico, Schleper still has close ties to the Americans, who could well have a big showing next month. She wants to see if Bode Miller will be healthy enough to compete. (He finished sixth in Kiztbuehel, Austria, during training on Thursday.) She has known Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin since they were youngsters on skis and will be watching it all with interest. Having gone through the gamut of injuries herself, Schleper said she is “inspired” by Vonn’s recent victories.
However, she says she’s still a competitive person and wants to do her best come the GS on Feb. 12. She can only imagine coming down into Red Tail Stadium with family and friends waiting.
“I want to ski a good run and put on a good show,” she said. “I want to make the town proud. Let’s all have a good time and show the world how much fun Vail is, whether you’re Mexican or American.”
The Worlds GS may not be the last we see of Schleper. Sarah plans to compete in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Then there’s Lasse, who is often seen on his mom’s Facebook feed tooling around Vail on skis, and young Resi seems to be getting into the act.
“I’ve taken her on walks with her in between my legs around on skis at Lionshead.” Sarah said. “At the beginning of the season, she started putting on her boots and walking around the house. It’s in her blood.”
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, email@example.com and @cfreud.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.