The Vail Valley will have strong hometown favorites in the world alpine ski championships in February at Beaver Creek, because two of the U.S. Ski Team's strongest medal contenders — Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin — grew up there.
But the locals also will be cheering for a racer representing Mexico. Sarah Schleper, a product of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail who raced in four Olympics and five world championships for the U.S. Ski Team, became a Mexican citizen in April and is coming out of retirement.
Schleper, 35, married a Mexican in 2007, and the couple have two children: Lasse, 6, and Resi, 13 months. The baby is named after U.S. Ski Team racer Resi Stiegler, who is the godmother for her namesake.
Schleper and her husband, Federico Gaxiola, live in Vail and Los Cabos, Mexico. Schleper now has dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship.
"What I'm really excited about is seeing racer Sarah come back," Gaxiola said. "Once this all came about, she turned into that old Sarah, the racer I knew. Watching that has been really fulfilling. And just being back in the game is extremely exciting. Racing world championships at home — instead of just going to the race and going to a couple of parties — but really being in the mix is exciting."
Schleper made her Olympic debut in the 1998 Nagano Games on her 19th birthday. If all goes well, she will race giant slalom at the 2015 world championships a week before her 36th birthday.
"I'm just going to do giant slalom, because I think I have a better shot," Schleper said. "And if I focus on one event, I can give myself better odds to be a little bit more successful. I also think slalom is harder as an older athlete, and I'm not quite as quick. In GS, I feel like I'm still pretty fast. Also, experience is more important in GS."
Schleper plans to race the World Cup GS races preceding the world championships, including one at Aspen on Nov. 29.
Schleper said goodbye to the World Cup circuit in December 2011, carrying her son (then 4) on her last run. But even then, she was thinking it could be "a cool option" to represent Mexico at some point. She tried to get Mexican citizenship to compete in the Sochi Olympics.
"We really did a really hard push this (past) fall to get it in time for Sochi, and we didn't get it through," Schleper said. "In Mexico, it's like everything takes for- ever. I was thinking: 'I'm not even going to get it in time for world champs (in 2015). At least I'll get it for the next Olympics.' "
But in early April, she got an e-mail confirming her citizenship application had been approved.
"We got so excited and had a little party in Vail," Schleper said in a phone interview from Los Cabos. "It was all in Spanish, so I had to make sure what I was reading, I was translating it right."
Two weeks later, she became a citizen at a ceremony in Mexico City and got to shake the hand of president Enrique Peña Nieto. Schleper didn't announce her intended return to racing until she received her Mexican passport the last week in May. Her desire to race for Mexico has been approved by the U.S. Ski Team and the International Ski Federation.
Having spent almost half her life on the U.S. Ski Team, now she's on her own. She's also going to help coach two young Mexican racers.
"I get to plan my own training, hire my own coaches. I don't have to qualify. I don't have to worry about anything," Schleper said. "I can just focus on what I want to do, how I want to do it. That is exciting."
The world championships in skiing is a major event that happens every other year. The world championships have been held in the U.S. only three times: Aspen (1950) and Vail-Beaver Creek (1989, 1999). Schleper didn't get to compete in the 1999 event, which will make 2015 even sweeter.
"It's so exciting," Schleper said. "The community in Vail has supported me so much, and for the whole community to be able to have somebody local — obviously they have Mikaela, as well, who is more of a medal contender — but it will be fun for the community having supported me for so long to be able to come watch me race again."