Sarah Schleper is in the midst of a cathartic comeback.

That’s the only way to describe a return to racing at the highest levels where success for the former American champion will in all likelihood not result in a headline-worthy finish. Instead, this time for the Vail Valley native it’s all about staying in the big game just a little bit longer, quite literally flying a new flag, inspiring athletes, women in particular, and, eventually, in her words, “being reborn” into something else entirely. It’s a chapter right out of the Schleper playbook, a fiercely competitive athlete who is known for her wild start-house roar and has always made her own rules. She has charted an unconventional, sometimes flamboyant course.

When Sarah Schleper launches into the giant slalom in Pyeongchang on February 12, she will be a week shy of her 39th birthday. It will be her fifth Olympics. And she will be skiing for… Mexico.

Five Olympics as a ski racer is a feat. For a little perspective, consider that this year’s medal favorite, Mikaela Shiffrin, was three when Schleper, at age 19, finished 22nd in the slalom in Nagano in 1998 (that was back in that pre-helmet era when she and others often raced in headbands). As a member of the United States ski team for 16 years, Schleper competed in four Olympics, seven national championships (she is a four-time U.S. slalom champion and a U.S. giant slalom champion) and raced onto four World Cup podiums. Her peak came in 2005, when she finished 5th in the World Cup slalom standings and 17th overall.

After retiring in 2011, Schleper returned to her hometown, where her husband Federico Gaxiola de Lama is a real estate broker. Her father, Buzz Schleper, something of a community institution himself, owns one of the oldest ski shops in town. Schleper focused on motherhood (she had one child then, another would come in 2013), but she stayed in the ski racing game, coaching and competing on and off herself.

“I was having a lot of fun,” she said in a recent interview from her 2018 winter home in northern Italy, “but I wanted to get back to racing at the highest level again.”

Rejoining the U.S. team wasn’t an option, but helping build a Mexican team was. Her husband and extended family are Mexican and she spends much of the year in Mexico. Citizenship was just a matter of, well, getting it.

Schleper had initially intended her major international debut as a Mexican skier to be the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but obtaining Mexican citizenship was more complicated than she anticipated, and it didn’t come through in time. Her first appearances for Mexico came in Nor-Am and FIS races in 2015 and 2016, where she went up against, among others, former American teammates, including athletes she herself had coached. She was skiing fast, beating kids half her age. In the 2016 U.S. national championships, skiing under the Mexican flag, the then 37-year-old Schleper finished 4th in the giant slalom, 7th in the super-G, and 12th in combined, besting a few U.S. teamers and many up-and-comers.

Schleper’s next major international appearance came the following year. In the 2016 World Championships in St. Moritz, she competed in all five disciplines. Her results didn’t make headlines, her best finish being 27th in the combined, but she succeeded in other ways: she skied well as one of the oldest athletes in the races, she skied for Mexico, and she wore a dazzling race suit designed to look like a Mexican mariachi musician.

“It’s so cool to see her still racing,” her former U.S. teammate Resi Stiegler said recently. “I mean, with two kids and at her age to just be out there is an inspiration. I think she’s doing a good job in her own way to inspire young girls, giving them confidence and showing them this rad journey.” 

“Sarah was the best US women’s skier when I got on the World Cup team,” Stiegler continued. “She really pushed me. She’s much more competitive that I ever was and her drive was so good for me back then, and it still is. She’s still competing with me and pushing me, and always checking in and making sure I’m doing everything I can to be the best.” 

Last summer, with the Pyeongchang Olympics squarely in her sights, Schleper was dealt a setback. In June she tore her ACL in training and was forced to take six months to heal. Her first race after surgery and rehab was a World Cup giant slalom at Kronplatz, Italy a few weeks ago. That was followed by another World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Up to that point the training had been going well. She relishes in the racing world, seeing old friends, and, in the past few years, challenging preconceptions about age and ability.

“At the start of the warm-up course today a lot of the girls were like ‘who is this girl in the Mexican suit, with the wrinkly face, and how old is she anyway?’ ” Schleper says, giggling, describing a World Cup warm-up course. “It’s fun, it’s fun to bring something different to the table and see what I can do with my body, and my experience.”

But the two World Cups were a wake-up call. The upbeat tone of the interview a few days before was replaced by sober introspection in a follow-up email. Here was an athlete who has burned hot her entire life and stretched her career far beyond its logical end. Now suddenly, she is being forced to face the realities of time and age.

“I’m feeling a little low, I have to say. I thought I could be closer,” she said in the email. “I am proud that I made it back with the knee injury, and I am going to race the Olympic GS in less than two weeks…  I am not going to give up on this until I cross the finish line.”

But… “it’s extremely tough to be competitive, at my age, plus the two kids, plus the independent team. Throw in an ACL and no ski tech and I can count the seconds.”

Ski racing has defined Sarah Schleper.

“There was a part of her that went away when she retired from the World Cup,” her husband told The New York Times in 2013. “It’s nice to see the racer I know return. It is her at her fullest.”

Schleper has forever been passionate about bringing young people into the sport, and now, even with limited resources, to develop a Mexican team. Seventeen-year-old Mexican racer Rodolfo Dickson is one of Schleper’s teammates in Pyeongchang. By all available evidence, he appears to be the first Mexican to win an international race — taking an FIS Super-G in upstate New York in 2015. Schleper is coaching several promising young Mexicans based out of Vail.

For our interview, I catch Schleper at the end of one of her kid’s race days. She’s in the German-speaking part of Italy for the winter so her children can learn the language. Lasse is 10, and Resi, named after Resi Stiegler, is 4. I can hear them in the background. Schleper is undistracted and talkative.

“This is a ski racing mecca, which is why I’m here, and for the German (language),” she explains of Kronplatz. “I’m friends with (Italian racer) Denise Karbon and her dad is helping me, he’s a legend, Arnold Karbon.”

Schleper is on a tear now about ski racing, reflecting on the legends who’ve inspired and pushed her: her friend and Colorado ski coach, Crawford Pierce, who coached Erik Schlopy to a comeback; famed coach, Erich Sailer — “I’ve worked with him my whole life and he’s why I love ski racing so much and what’s kept me at such a high level for so long” — and former U.S. and Eastern region coach, George Capaul.

Mexico is sending a total of four athletes to the games. Due to her recent injury Schleper is limiting herself exclusively to compete in the giant slalom. In addition to her and Dickson, there’s a Mexican freestyle skier and a cross-country skier.

Schleper receives no financial aid from Mexico. Instead, her support comes from friends and supporters, including Mexican ski-racing families, who spend a portion of the year in Colorado. She’s also launched a crowd-funding campaign.

Questions about her athletic defection are waved off with pragmatic enthusiasm.

“I love Mexico. I’m married to a Mexican. My children are Mexican. Half my family is in Mexico. I am super proud to represent Mexico,” she says. And, she adds, striking a political tone: “I stand not only for the Mexicans in Mexico but all the Mexicans living in the United States.”

Schleper has been selected to carry the Mexican flag at the opening ceremonies, an honor she fought for. She’s also got the Mexican national anthem, “el Himno de Mexico,” committed to memory, although the chances of hearing it a Winter Olympics medal ceremony are slim. One thing she will belt out, though, is her signature start-house roar.

“Oh yeah,” she says of the roar. “That’s part of the fun.”

But this isn’t all fun for the former champion. Something else, something much more profound, is playing out. She closed out her World Cup career as an American in 2011, skiing a World Cup slalom with her young son in her arms, a gesture whose significance was not lost on anyone. There will be no props this time. This time she will be fighting for every fraction of a second until she reaches the finish line, which for her won’t be a finish line at all, but rather a door that will open — and close.

“After the Olympics…?” she asked, rhetorically, “I will die inside.”

“All the gurus talk about dying before you can be reborn.  This Olympics will be a death for me. But then I will be reborn… a new direction. I haven’t committed to anything yet, but junior-team Mexico is on the drawing board.”

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Biddle Duke
- Contributing writer Biddle Duke was a newspaper reporter and editor in three states and Argentina before moving to northern Vermont where he has owned and operated a group of weeklies for the past 20 years. A writer and editor for a number of publications, Duke is married to artist Idoline Duke. They have two grown children; their son skis for the Middlebury College alpine team. During winter, Biddle enjoys climbing up and sliding down snow, preferably far away from society.
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