Lienz, Austria – Four-time alpine skiing Olympian Sarah Schleper started the final Audi FIS Alpine World Cup of her career on Thursday. After 15 seasons including five World Championships and 186 World Cup starts, the 32-year-old from Vail, Colo., known for her wildly curly blond hair, called the Dec. 29 Lienz slalom her final World Cup roar.
She skied in a brown dress with flowers on her helmet and stopped midway to pick up her three-year-old son Lasse, then carried him through the remaining gates to the finish. She punched the last gate for good measure.
“I had to do something special for my final race,” said Schleper who is known for her signature lion roar before leaving the start gate. “After so many race runs, it was time to do something that would be memorable and make people laugh. I am definitely going to miss racing. I still love being in the starting gate. I still love racing and competing. I love all the girls on tour.”
Lasse (named after Norwegian alpine great Lasse Kjus) will turn four at the end of January and Schleper says it’s time to move her focus to him and possibly another child with husband Federico de Gaxiola in her hometown of Vail.
“Growing up in a town like Vail is pretty much every ski racer’s dream,” said Schleper, whose father Buzz owns a ski and snowboard shop in the village. “They’ve always been supportive of me and the ski racing community. I’ve been a gypsy since I was 12 years old, but Vail has always been home.”
A five-time Junior Olympics gold medalist, Schleper learned to ski and race through Erich Sailer’s acclaimed Buck Hill Ski Ski Team in Minnesota. After moving to Colorado, she joined Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV) at 11 and started her first World Cup just a short five years later.
“There have been a number of influential coaches in my career,” said Schleper. “My first U.S. Ski Team coach was Georg Capaul, who taught me so much about racing and making a life out of it. Then I won my first World Cup with Trevor Wagner, whose coaching technique was so creative and fun.
“But I always have gone back to my mentor in Erich Sailer. He’s been there to lift me up at every stage of my career. I’ve been really blessed with so many wonderful and influential people,” she said.
“She was a wild young girl with a lot of will and persistence,” said Sailer, who began coaching Schleper at nine-years-old. “But she was also a natural skier. I’m sad to see her move on and hopefully she’ll continue to coach. She has been coaching my summer ski camp for the last eight years at Mt. Hood. She loves kids and kids love her.”
From her first World Cup start in 1995 at 16, Schleper evolved into a leader and mentor on the women’s technical team, particularly for Resi Stiegler and fellow SSCV alum Mikaela Shiffrin.
Almost magically, Shiffrin, who was born the year Schleper started her first World Cup race, landed the first World Cup podium of her young career with a slalom third the day Sarah skied her final gates in Lienz.
“Sarah is my best friend and my soul sister,” said Stiegler. “She is truly one of a kind. A brilliantly beautiful woman who has accomplished so much in her life. I am so happy to have been around to have her support, her inspiration and her energy.”
“Sarah has always been the light of the team, always smiling, always happy, always funny,” added Lindsey Vonn. “She just brings so much energy to the team. I tried to convince her to stay on the World Cup but she says it’s her time. We wish her the best with whatever she’s going to do in the future. It’s not going to be the same without her.”
Schleper plans to stay in Europe for a few months in order to tour with her family on a route that doesn’t involve ski racing. She’ll then head back to Vail to start the next chapter.
“Now it’s about taking 100 percent care of my family,” she said. “Federico and I would like to have another child and I’d like to do everything I can to give Lasse every opportunity he needs to live a good life. I know that parents are so important in the lives of champions and I’d like him to be a champion.”
Schleper, a six-time U.S. champion, does plan to race the Nature Valley U.S. Alpine Championships March 28-April 1, 2012 in Winter Park, Colo.