Vail ski racer Sarah Schleper qualifies for sixth Olympic Games, second for Mexico
VAIL — Sarah Schleper hasn’t lost her need for speed.
When asked of the secret to her abnormally long career, Schleper responded, “First, it’s love for the sport and a love for hard work; making difficult situations fun. Then, to be a ski racer, you have to want to go fast.”
Before the 2022 Winter Olympics — her sixth — are over, Schleper will turn 43. She made four U.S. teams before qualifying for Mexico in 2018 and 2022. Married to Federico Gaxiola, the Vail native would have competed in the 2014 Games, too, but completed her four-year citizenship process a month late.
“I love ski racing, and I love being in the mountains and the travel and the friends — it’s not a story you could dream up, just to continue in this way,” she said of her journey. “Even though I’m not as fast as I used to be, it’s fun to be a part of.”
After being named to the U.S. team as a 16-year-old, the ageless wonder would eventually pass the baton to another young star: Mikaela Shiffrin, who stood on the podium in Schleper’s final race as an American.
“I loved having her on the team because I learned a lot from her,” Schleper said of her former teammate.
“She was so serious about skiing and a lot of the times we were more about having fun and she was like, ‘I want to be the best.’ It showed in her work ethic and the things she was doing, and for me that was an eye opener. Maybe had she been there when I was young, I could have fed off of it more.”
As Shiffrin’s status was growing, so was Schleper’s family. The veteran did not feel the necessary support from the American coaches.
“I had a family and I was struggling just to make it to training and stuff, and he (her coach) wasn’t that supportive of what was going on,” Schleper said.
“And I didn’t like getting beat. It was hard because I had been the fastest on our team for so long.”
Fortunately, she found a better fit.
“That’s a lot of the reason I’m on the Mexican team. I’m able to shuffle and juggle ski racing, coaching, a family, and make it work and make it fun,” she said.
“And I’m seven seconds behind Mikaela, which hurts, because you’re like, ‘I can win a medal still.’ You have this strange belief as an Olympic racer that you’re going to make the miracle happen, and that sometimes crosses my mind.”
Schleper’s shift in priorities has been gradual. The one-track mind of her 16-year-old self is gone. Though she still loves skiing, the mountains, the travel and the race bibs, her heart is more concerned with her kids, 14-year-old Lasse and 8-year-old Resi, both of whom are promising ski racers, too.
“When you think about what you want in your life — I want to be a good mother, I want to be the glue to the family and make it all work,” Schleper said, noting she hopes to raise her kids as Mexican Alpine ski team members.
“I don’t want to just focus on my racing. The more they become the racers, the less I want to focus on my racing and the more I want to help them become their best racers.”
Resi was standing at the bottom of the Cortina World Cup last weekend when she radioed to her mom in the starting gate, “Mom, don’t crash.”
“Those little things creep in and you do have to try and override it somehow,” said Schleper, who admits she was never willing to risk it all like a Lindsey Vonn.
Her husband is her physiotherapist, coach, and wax technician — unless, of course, he is helping the kids learn their German or Italian, an extra requirement for spending the majority of the winter in Europe. Still, she tunes her own skis.
“It’s very amateur,” she said of her arrangement. But, she wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Just to be able to go to these races and compete with them at that level I think is something special.”
Sometimes, her dad, Buzz, calls to remind her that she might be over the hill.
“My dad — he’s always like, ‘When are you going to stop?'” she said, speaking of the owner of the Vail snowboard shop carrying his name.
“He doesn’t like it when I’m so slow. … that’s always hard. But we do it because we love it. It’s a way to be out in nature and out in the world. It’s just a lifestyle.”
Even though she is still working to be more fluent in Spanish, she is proud to be Mexico’s flag bearer in China.
“I’m honored to bring their country — because they don’t have a lot of snow — to the Winter Olympics,” she said. “I love the culture. I could never have dreamed of being a dual citizen of two countries. If I could choose any country, it would be Mexico.”
She hopes to continue racing through 2026 so she can share an Olympic experience with 14-year-old Lasse.
“Yes, I still carry that dream,” she said of competing at a Games with her son.
“I think the story would be fun and it would be a cool way to end and for him to start.”