Sarah Schleper, competing for Mexico, has more to accomplish in fifth Olympics | SummitDaily.com

Sarah Schleper, competing for Mexico, has more to accomplish in fifth Olympics

Ed Stoner
estoner@swiftcom.com

Vail's Sarah Schleper is competing in the giant slalom in Pyeongchang, South Korea, for Team Mexico. Schleper, seen here at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is skiing in the Olympics for the fifth time.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — These Olympics — Sarah Schleper's fifth — are so far her favorite.

She's been pin trading in the athlete village, dancing Gangnam Style in the Opening Ceremonies with her Mexico teammates and doing interviews about her Day of the Dead-themed ski suits.

As for the competition, the ultra-competitive Schleper admits winning a gold medal would be nothing short of a miracle. In her last World Cup race, the Lenzerheide, Switzerland, giant slalom in January, she finished nine seconds behind the leader in the first run.

But she has other goals for Pyeongchang. To represent her adopted country of Mexico. To help build up the ski racing program in Mexico. To inspire the kids that she trains as a ski coach. To complete her comeback from an ACL tear in June. And just to race — she still loves ski racing.

"I think it's just the participation in the Olympics is such an incredible feat in itself," she said.

She was supposed to carry the flag in Opening Ceremonies, but a last-minute change of plan gave those responsibilities to a Mexican Nordic skier.

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"They were like, 'Oh, apparently he's more Mexican because he was born in Mexico and he speaks better Spanish,'" she said.

But Schleper, 38, doesn't feel like any less of a Mexican after growing up in Vail and becoming a Mexican citizen in 2014 (her husband, Federico Gaxiola de la Lama, is Mexican).

She retired from the U.S Ski Team in 2011 with one World Cup win and three other podiums. She mounted a comeback with Team Mexico, but was unable to secure a spot in the Sochi Olympics because the paperwork wasn't done in time.

'Extremely competitive'

She's now back in the Olympics for the first time since competing for the U.S. in 2010 in Vancouver, where she finished 14th in giant slalom and 16th in slalom.

She also competed in Nagano, Japan, in 1998; Salt Lake City in 2002; and Torino, Italy in 2006.

She'll compete in the giant slalom, which was postponed to Thursday due to high winds at Yongpyong Alpine Centre on Monday.

Her husband, her 10-year-old son, Lasse, and her 4-year-old daughter, Resi, are here in South Korea to cheer her on.

"She's extremely competitive and you can still see that," said U.S. racer Resi Stiegler, a longtime friend who is the namesake for Schleper's daughter. "She's turning 39 in a week and she has two kids and she's racing down these injected hills that some days I'm like, 'Oh my God, I don't know if I can do this.'"

The team's race suits, designed by team leader and six-time Olympic skier Prince Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, have been gaining notoriety among the Olympic press corps — just as the team's mariachi suits did in 2014.

"He's a good friend of my Mexican family," Schleper said. "He's the reason I'm Mexican because he was the one who was like, 'You should switch to the Mexican team.' And so we started right away trying to do it. He's been probably one of my biggest supporters."

Coaching and racing, too

Twenty-three years after she made her World Cup debut in her hometown of Vail, the same passion for skiing burns in Schleper.

"I love skiing, and I love ski racing," she said.

She's been working with a coach, Lyndsay Strange, and has competed in two World Cup this year after blowing her knee last summer at Mount Hood. She made a plea to friends and family to help fund her ski racing this year, which has helped defray the costs of this effort.

Schleper will be the oldest woman in the field in the giant slalom Thursday. There are five skiers in the field born in 2001, the year Schleper turned 22.

Schleper has been racing with kids that young for a few years — and coaching them at the same time as part of various clubs and camps.

"I've seen her coach, and she's racing there with them and then she's training with them and she's coaching," Stiegler said. "It's this back and forth thing that's kind of a little bit more modern and weird for some people, but she's changed the game for a lot of those girls. I've seen 10 girls with her that love skiing, and she makes it fun for them."

Not done yet

One young girl that she raced with was Mikaela Shiffrin — they were U.S. teammates when Shiffrin made her World Cup debut at age 15 in 2011; Schleper retired from the team later that year. Shiffrin faces expectations of being one of the biggest stars of the Pyeongchang Games.

"She just amazes me," Schleper said of Shiffrin. "I mean, I kind of knew. Even at the beginning you could tell just how focused she was and dedicated. And she did everything right."

After 20 years, Schleper isn't saying goodbye to the Olympics, or the challenges of ski racing — even as she raises two kids. She's thinking of competing in 2022 in China, which would be Olympics No. 6.

"I would probably focus more on speed just because it's easier," she said. "Although it is more dangerous."