Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A conversation with Olympian Sarah Schleper

Competing in one Winter Olympics is pretty big stuff. But Sarah Schleper, member of the US Ski Team, has competed in not just one, or two, or even three Olympic games. Vancouver was her  fourth Winter Olympics. And that's not all. She was also the only mom on the US Ski Team in Vancouver, and the only one born in the 1970's.

A Colorado native, Sarah started with Ski Club Vail at age 11 and made her World Cup debut just five years later. In between, she won five Junior Olympics gold medals and was the Whistler Cup slalom champ in 1994. She also won a Junior Worlds silver medal and a World Cup race, and is a four-time US slalom champion. Skiing magazine dubbed her as "the great blonde hope ... part Rasta, part Harpo, part Medusa, all Sarah."

I recently asked this remarkable skier some questions:

Q: What's your life been like since the Olympics?
A: Life is life. I keep on living, being a mother, a wife, and a ski racer. I finished out the World Cup season over in Garmisch, and the US Nationals at Lake Placid, New York. When Vail closed for the season, my family and I headed south for our favorite pastime, surfing. I would be in the water all day if it wasn't for giving my husband a chance to surf while Lasse [her son] and I build castles in the sand.

Q: What was the Olympic experience like for you? Did you do as well as you expected?
A: All four of my Olympic experiences have been some of the most memorable competitions of my life. I always go to the Olympics gunning to win a medal, and for this I maintain a focus that is determined and blinded to a lot of the commotion surrounding an event as big as the Olympics. I enjoyed the Whistler venue and being at a mountain comparable to Vail in skiable acreage. The entertainment in Whistler was unbelievable. Junior Gong, one of my favorites, played a free concert that I saw with my brothers and my pa.

As for the races, I was disappointed in my second run in the GS. I put myself in a great position to attack for a medal after the first run. I just didn't let it run on the second run, which happened on the following day, because the weather was foggy and the visibility was zero. In the slalom, I opened my chin with a gate on my way down my first run. I think this actually relaxed any anxiety I had for the race. My face hurt and I had to concentrate on getting it patched. I made a super fast first run. In the course report for the second run, it was radioed up the hill that there was a hole on this hairpin on the last pitch. I really blew it because I hesitated going into that hole and just lost all my speed and moved from what could have been a medal position to 17th place. Of course, we always dream of gold medals and if we didn't we wouldn't be going to the lengths to train hard and go faster everyday. I tasted my dream, and I can live with the experience of racing as a mother, and being proud of myself for undertaking a comeback, with my family always a fast first ahead of my agenda to be number one.

Q: What was your favorite Olympic moment? 
A: Team processing with teammates Hailey [Duke] and Megan [McJames]. The three of us have really become close. Sharing the experience with them was incredible -- from team processing through the opening ceremonies, training, and races; in fact, all the way to the White House. It was great to share this part of my life with some great people.

Q:  You let out this sort of roar when you come out of the gate. Can you explain how that started and why you do it? 
A: It's the inherent nature of a lioness about to attack, and when I race my lioness comes out to play. It started a long time ago. At times I have felt too reserved to actually do it, but in the end if you can let out a roar before you go it releases the tension of the race and allows for a fluid mentality going through the gates.

Q:  I know you were the only one on the team born in the 70's. What was it like being the "old lady" of the team? Are challenges different for you now than when you were younger? 
A: I wouldn't go as far to say I am an old lady. Sure, I've been around that block a few times, but I am as young as they get, really. Age is a number and my age comes from the seventies, but in reality I am infinite and I just like to go fast. My teammates are my closest friends and I hope I can help create a team that can charge in Europe. I am proud to be teammates with Lindsey Vonn who has achieved the unachievable. I have seen her grow from an innocent 7 year old little racergirl into a very well spoken champion and that has been an experience that changes lives; not only her's but those around her, including inspiring teammates and anotehr generation of racers. I hope I have also inspired kids to go fast and maybe some mothers, as well.

Q: What are the challenges of being a ski racer and a mom? How do you balance the two?
A:  Thanks be to fate, my husband has been the key to our balance. Both Federico [her husband] and Lasse come on the road. We base out of Innsbruck, Austria, in the winter and live the circus lifestyle. Parenting has come very natural to both my husband and me. We are so proud of our son, and he is the most important part of our lives in every way. It's hard to get going and get to the gym and things like that, but I have always had a strong will. When I set my mind to something I go at it with all my heart until it's done. Being a mother has made me a stronger athlete in the end, the balance of life.

Q: You've had an incredible career. What would you say has been the highlight so far and why? 
A: Highlights and lowlights, as long as we spread the light and share our insight.

Q: Have you started your son skiing yet? Any advice for moms getting their kids started? 
A: My brother, Hunter, had Lasse in ski boots and outside Buzz's [her dad's shop in Vail] on skis at 14 months. He's had over 30 days of skiing this winter, both with reins and in between my and my husband's legs. We never push him to ski. If he wants to go in after one run, we take him in. And when he wants to stay out, we let him rip. I found when we ski with other kids he's inspired to ski by himself. He loves being with kids so he wants to ski in ski school. I told him he has to be able to stop by himself before he can start ski school. He practices stopping in his shoes. I used the reins, but in the end I found it easier just to have him in between my legs and then when we hit catwalks or places where he can go by himself, I can let go but just stay around him to catch him.

Q: How do you keep in shape during the off season? What' s your favorite activity?
A:  I would surf every day, every hour, if I could. It's my passion and I have a love affair with the ocean. I also like riding mountain bikes, water skiing, dirt bikes, swimming, basketball, weightlifting, runnning, doing quickness excersises, circuits, core every morning before I ski, volleyball. I love it all. I am very competitive and very focused.

Q: How would you compare surfing to skiing? 
A: My skiing is very jealous of the piece of my heart I give to surfing. They are both spiritual. Being outside with nature and being a piece of the bigger planet and universe has me captivated for life.

Q: What's next for you?
A:  I won't be sure if I'm going to continue as a ski racer until later in the summer. I gave this last year everything I had and I am still decompressing and thinking about where I want to be in ten years. I feel I could go on to Sochi, but I want my body to agree.

Q:  For the gear heads out there: what do you ski on, when you're not racing? And when you are? 
A: I race on 158 Rossignol Slaloms and 182 Rossignol GS skis. I like the S7's for deep powder days, and S5's for an all mountain day. I love running my GS skis for cruising Vail.

Q:  You have this amazing hair. Do you do anything special to keep it that way? 
A: Au natural, I guess. I never brush it. and I like it when it's a little frizzy.

I also asked Sarah to complete the following thoughts:

 My favorite guilty pleasure is: dancing.
 If I wasn't a ski racer, I'd be: lost.
 My favorite after ski meal is: Pasta when in Italy. knoedel when in Austria, my pa's elk stew when I am at home.
Don't ask me to: stop.

Don't worry, Sarah -- we won't!

If you'd like to find out more about Sarah, be sure to visit her website here.

Be sure to visit TheSkiDiva.com, an internet forum especially for women skiers, where women skiers can connect with one another to talk about everything and anything ski-related.

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