Sarah Schleper’s life has always been about challenge and balance. From the time she decided that she wanted to be an alpine ski racer she became a juggler of sorts between school, practice and competition – the balance and challenge always a priority.
Schleper’s career began in 1995 and spanned 15 years, a stint that included four Olympic games, seven national championships and four World Cup podium finishes.
When Schleper announced her retirement in 2011, this free spirit did so in style. Skiing in her last World Cup run and dressed to the nines, Schleper stopped mid-way down, picked up her four-year-old son, Lasse, and carried him through the finish line.
Then, Schleper did what many ski racing “retirees” do – she returned home – in this case, Vail – began coaching and in 2013 had a second child, a daughter, Resi. Life was good, certainly more tranquil than Schleper was used to, yet she still thought about racing – a lot. She missed the camaraderie. She missed the competition. As she told the New York Times last year, “I had retired, but I never really let it go completely. In my mind, I never really gave up ski racing.”
And so, Schleper, who is married to Federico Gaxiola de la Lama, a real estate broker and Mexican citizen – and always the maverick – had an uncommon idea. She pursued Mexican citizenship, which gave her dual citizenship and, eventually, she received permission from international ski officials to represent Mexico instead of the United States.
“I love skiing, and I love racing,”remarks Schleper, “and it was an opportunity to continue without the confinement pressures of big teams and having to continue to perform. I could focus on my family and race at the same time. And that worked for me.
“And then I had the idea of building a Mexican training center in Vail and I started hearing from a lot of Mexican kids who were interested in training. So it went, even beyond myself, in building another program. Of course, I have to balance being an athlete and having a career and family.”
Last summer, Schleper set up her own camp in Europe where she coached young skiers from Mexico, as well as the United States. Now she is working with a team of girls, just out of high school, who don’t feel as though they are finished with their skiing careers. They train at Copper Mountain, Keystone and Breckenridge.
“I’m working in Summit County with a group of U18 members (six girls under 18), because there isn’t a program for that in the valley,” says Schleper. “So we created a team, within a program called Team Summit, to provide an extra opportunity for these girls before they move onto college. And I am the coach, mentor and racer.
“I train alongside the girls. I bring pace and experience and it’s also an opportunity for me to train and compete against pretty fast athletes.”
According to Schleper, there really isn’t an official Mexican ski team. And that’s what Schelper wants to create. In fact, she is the only woman representing Mexico in all the current World Cup races.
“Getting a team together is a long-term process,” explains Schleper. “If we wanted to do it right and have a center here in Vail, we’d need a house where kids could stay. Then we’d have to arrange something within the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, and that would take time. And then I would have to create a team. So going through all the steps will be a process. I have a goal, a good vision and a goal to work towards.”
Schleper continues, “They say that when kids are just learning something, they’ll pick it up faster if the teacher is passionate and shares that with the kids. I really focus on that – just getting the kids that I coach and the people I work with to love the sport, the outdoors and nature.
“That, for me, comes full circle. It certainly makes sense from all the training I did when I was younger: that I can pass it down and share that with the kids.
“I really love that.”