Schleper attempting to make fourth U.S. Olympic team
COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. – Sarah Schleper closely consults her checklist to make sure she leaves nothing behind before taking off for a ski competition.
The three-time U.S. Olympian tosses goggles and gloves into her overflowing travel bag, along with some extra diapers, pacifiers and a security blanket.
All necessary equipment for a skier traveling with a toddler.
Schleper and her husband, Federico Gaxiola, are schlepping around the world to ski events on their own dime this season, with their young son, Lasse, in tow. One last pursuit of an Olympic medal for the 30-year-old Schleper has become a family ambition.
“That’s really what I’m stoked about, having that opportunity again,” said Schleper, who will compete at Aspen Winternational over the weekend, the first women’s World Cup stop in North America this season. “I couldn’t do this without my family.”
Not even 2 years old yet, Lasse has already been to 17 different countries, speaks words in three different languages – including fairly fluent Spanish – and can charge down a slope on his own pair of skis.
He can thank mom later for all of that.
Leaving Lasse and her husband behind to go racing simply wasn’t an option. If Schleper was going to try for one more Olympic team, they all had to be on board.
“If they weren’t here, I’d be so heartbroken,” she said. “It would be too hard emotionally. They don’t come to all the training, but they come to all the races.”
It’s been a pricey proposition. Given her ranking, Schleper’s not on the “A” squad and her expenses aren’t totally covered by the U.S. Ski Team this season. That means travel, food and lodging comes out of her own pocket.
“It’s been hard on us financially, especially in this economy,” said Schleper, who still receives other amenities from the U.S. team, such as coaching and technical support. “We’re getting by.”
Losing her spot on the “A” team has been a humbling experience for Schleper, but it’s also rekindled her passion for the slopes.
“It makes you a better person, better athlete, fight harder and want it more,” she said. “I like the struggle and I think that’s what it’s all about.”
Still, the doubt sometimes tugged at her. Is this worth it? Does she really want to drain the family’s finances for one last shot at the Olympics? Should they really be doing this?
Her husband, though, would always be quick to quell those concerns.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” said Gaxiola, who married Schleper in October 2007. “In my mind, there was never any doubt that she was going to continue. She was skiing too well not to try.”
Schleper hasn’t spent all that much time on the snow in recent seasons, injuries and the birth of her child keeping her sidelined. She had back surgery for a ruptured disk a few months before the 2006 Turin Olympics, only to return and finish 10th in the slalom.
Soon after, she tore the ACL in her left knee, which forced her to spend the entire 2006-07 season in rehab. Then Schleper took off the following season while pregnant with Lasse, who was born Jan. 30, 2008.
Given the rash of injuries – and new son – why not call it a career? What more was there left to prove for the longtime veteran?
“A lot,” said Schleper, a four-time U.S. slalom champion. “(Stepping away) doesn’t really go through any ski racer’s mind.”
Schleper used last season as an opportunity to launch her comeback. As the year progressed, she gradually got stronger even if the results weren’t always showing.
“Federico was like, ‘We’re going to take each race as a step toward the Olympics. Don’t get down on yourself if you have a bad result,”‘ Schleper said. “It’s nice to have somebody there to encourage me, because I think if I didn’t have that I’d put so much pressure on myself.”
Lasse has helped in that regard as well. He doesn’t care what place his mom finishes, just wants to hang out with her. And showering him with attention gives her mind a much-needed distraction from racing.
“Now, coming back from the hill, it’s like, ‘Let’s give Lasse some quality time,”‘ said Schleper, who named her son in part after one of her idols, Norwegian skier Lasse Kjus. “I’ve just tried to find the balance of giving Lasse a good experience and being able to be a good mother to him and show him a good path.”
To keep expenses down, the family lives just outside of Innsbruck, Austria, in the winter so that it’s cheaper to get to the largely European-based skiing events. Some of her sponsors, like Rossignol, contribute but it’s not nearly enough.
That’s why Schleper scours the Internet for discounted plane tickets months in advance, and since Lasse is still young enough to sit in a lap, they only have to buy two seats – and hope there’s an empty seat next to them.
Schleper’s not sure how much longer she’ll ski, possibly even drawing the curtain down on her long career as soon as the end of this season.
As for life after skiing, well, she’s still slaloming through her options. Her father owns a ski shop in Vail, and they’ve talked about opening another. She also might organize a ski camp.
For now, it’s about traveling around the world and enjoying the time with her husband and young son as she tries to secure a spot on the Olympic team.
Recently, Lasse received his own pair of skis and is obsessed with mastering the mountain.
“He has it in his blood to ski, to be in the mountains,” Schleper said.
That comes as no surprise.
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