Courtesy of the U.S. Ski Team
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December 3, 2008 — Even though it has been two long years, several surgeries and one new baby in the making, don't call Sarah Schleper's return to the U.S. Ski Team a comeback.
"I've never given up ski racing, not one day, since I hurt my knee, hurt my back, since I had (son) Lasse," said Schleper, a Vail native who's the only woman on the American team born in the 1970s. "The whole time, even while I was pregnant, I was still kind of training and keeping athletic and running just to keep up with it."
A three-time Olympian who turns 30 during the current World Cup season in February, Schleper had knee surgery one week after giving birth to Lasse in January so her recovery from both could occur simultaneously and she could get back to training as soon as possible.
That level of intensity is paying off for the former party girl with the long, curly blond hair who grew up in her dad's ski shop in Vail. Now married to Federico Gaxiola, whose family owns a home in Vail, Schleper clearly is more focused and able to enjoy her final hurrah in the sport she loves.
"It's taken a whole load off of my shoulders, it feels like," Schleper said of marriage and starting a family. "I just go out there and have fun, and if I don't win the race or I'm not in the race, I still have my family and everything's still golden."
Schleper finished 13th in a GS Nov. 29 in Aspen – her best result of the 2008-09 season.
Schleper isn't taking her final shot at Olympic glory for granted. At three previous games, her best result was 10th place in the slalom at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.
That finish was gratifying to her because it came after two back surgeries that nearly derailed her career. But soon after that, she blew out her knee during a World Cup race and missed the entire 2006-07 season. Then she got pregnant and missed all of 2007-08.
Schleper returned to the U.S. squad on the B Team, bringing her free spirit and energy back to a squad that has had plenty of success in her absence.
Lindsey Vonn, another Ski Club Vail product, is the defending overall World Cup champion, and Schleper remembers her coming up through the ranks and moving to Vail shortly after her own World Cup debut on home snow in Vail in 1995.
She and Federico, of Mexico City, now sometimes hang out with the younger Vonn and her husband, Thomas, a former ski racer, on the circuit in Europe because they're the only other married couples on the American team.
With only one World Cup win (a slalom in 2005) to her credit, Schleper marvels at Vonn's hard work and tenacity in racking up 14 wins, including a recent slalom in Finland.
Schleper said marriage has settled down Vonn and made her more confident, and Schleper is hoping her own young family will have the same effect on her as she takes one last shot at an Olympic medal at Vancouver in 2010.
"That's going to be the climax for us," she said, referring to her family (Lasse and Federico travel with her on the road) as Team Gaxiola. "We want to finish that World Cup season, and then we have plans to continue on with our family and see where our lives are going to go after racing. It's cool to have the ability and the opportunity to go for that fourth (Olympics) and still be in the game."
While their son bears the same name as one of the most decorated ski racers of all time, Norwegian great Lasse Kjus, both parents say it was really just a name they liked and they won't push their son into ski racing.
"We wanted a name that works in both English and Spanish and that tie to the ski world is cool for him, having Sarah as a mom and not even knowing if he will become a racer one day," Gaxiola said.
Lasse and Federico traveled with Schleper during the first month of the World Cup season, staying in hotels across Europe while she tried to maintain her training routine under sometimes difficult circumstances.
"One thing I do find that's kind of cool for us as a family is, even in the economic struggle that everyone's having, we're out here traveling," Schleper said. "It's a lot of hard work, but we're also looking at it like we're getting to see the world and ski in really cool places, and we're also inspiring families to get out there and be active."
Zest for life
One thing Schleper said her father, Buzz, a self-proclaimed ski bum who owns Buzz's Ski Shop and Buzz's Boards in Vail, always instilled in her was the need to work hard for everything but also to have fun and enjoy life.
When in 2000 his daughter made the impetuous decision to ski down the Back Bowls topless with a friend for a photo in the local newspaper (which added strategic black bars), Buzz Schleper and the other girl's father duplicated the photo shoot, skiing shirtless for the April Fool's edition of the same newspaper (with black bars). Sarah Schleper said that's all part of her freewheeling past - but not something she regrets.
"That's another thing Federico has helped me with a lot is I used to be a bit of a party girl, and I don't go out anymore. I just really try to stay focused and drink a lot of water," Schleper said with a laugh. "I don't have any regrets for that photo at all. It was fun, and it was just playing around and it wasn't something to be ashamed of at all."
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