Great Expectations

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He got off to a fast start. A cocky racing sensation by age 13, Erik Schlopy will tell you he won 26 of the 28 races he entered that season. He lost a ski and fell in one race. The second "loss," as he calls it, was at the Junior Olympics, where he was beaten in the first run of the GS but won the second, thus winning the GS and slalom titles. Then, for the next dozen years, he became famous for his inconsistency.

Schlopy is blessed with talent. A two-time national champion at 19, he was anointed the rising star of the U.S. Ski Team. Then he broke his back in a horrific downhill training crash before the 1993 World Alpine Ski Championships in Morioka-Shizukuishi, Japan.Schlopy is persistent. Instead of accepting defeat, he recovered, and in 1995 joined the U.S. Pro Tour. Following some initial success, he took his lumps, learned hard lessons and grew up. After three years as a pro, Schlopy made the decision to return to the "amateur" World Cup ranks, hoping to compete in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

The climb back has been steep and the costs enormous, yet Schlopy is fortunate. On the eve of this season's Games, he stands third in the world in giant slalom. He is, at age 29, a serious contender for at least one Olympic medal. And, in the summer of 2002, he plans to marry Nnenna Lynch, a Rhodes Scholar, former world-class runner and New York investment banker.

The real Erik Schlopy story, though, is not about a comeback or even happy endings. It is about how preparation and process can triumph over expectations¿and obsession with results. Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., there was never a doubt about what Schlopy would do in the winter.

"Ideas about basketball or hockey never entered my mind," he says. "The big question for my sister Keri and me was 'What trails will we ski today?'"His parents, Kent and Marnie, were both ski instructors. When Erik was 3, they placed him in the junior race program at Kissing Bridge, N.Y. "I was good at racing from the get-go," he recalls, "but freeskiing and jumps were the most fun." He still loves to freeski, "the art of dancing at high speed," as he calls it, though the jumping part is something of an Achilles' heel.The family moved to Stowe, Vt., when Erik was 12. Keri went to nearby Burke Mountain Academy while Erik soon became the golden boy of the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club. "Stowe was a big mountain compared to Kissing Bridge," he says.

"I got great training from Mark Hutchinson and George Tormey, the club's head coach. "Hutch knew how to handle me. He put me in a mental state where all the pressure was off, and he made competing fun. I looked forward to every race because Hutch was at the start making me laugh." That season he won more than two dozen races, but it was shortly afterward that a pattern began.

As he grew older, erratic performance, frustration and injury punctuated Schlopy's spurts of glistening success. "I knew I could be good. I have a talent for going fast, and I had moments of brilliance. But I wanted things to happen faster than they did. For 10 years I focused on my results and not on the process.

"Every racer at the world level has a gift for speed, and I am only in the middle of the pack in that regard. After a broken back and a bad knee, I can't afford to be reckless. Being 'fast' is just a byproduct of the other things I do."

At age 14, Schlopy followed his sister to Burke Mountain Academy, which at the time produced the lion's share of U.S. Ski Team athletes. He graduated in 1990 with a torn knee ligament and was not named to the U.S. team. He did a short stint at the University of Vermont while recuperating from his injury. He managed to make the Rocky Mountain Division Team, where coaches Crawford Pierce and Georg Capaul persuaded him to concentrate on fundamentals. Though bitterly disappointed by his failure to make the 1992 Olympic Team, within weeks he began winning secondary level races in Europe, swept two titles at the U.SAlpine Championships and was finally named to the U.S. B Team.The following season, he had good early results in super G and was elevated to the A Team at age 20. "That didn't help me much," says Schlopy. "I had too much success too early and didn't take the proper steps. I went into every World Cup race planning to win¿even though I had no World Cup points."

Then there was the spectacular, high-flying crash during downhill training at the 1993 World Championships in Japan, where he sustained two compressed vertebrae, fractured his sternum and bit a hole in his tongue. It wasn't the first time U.S. Ski Team coaches had been accused of pushing a young racer too far too fast. In the same training run, two young teammates, Paul Casey Puckett and Chad Fleischer, also ended up in the hospital.

In Schlopy's case, it was air time that did him in. "I take full responsibility for the fact I didn't press that jump," Schlopy allows. "I had no downhill experience and little jump training. I just wanted to go for it." He now wishes a coach had intervened. "Good coaching is about racer management. Athletes need to be brought along slowly. I still see racers in situations where they shouldn't be."

Dennis Agee, the U.S. alpine program director at the time, shudders as he remembers Schlopy's fall in Morioka. "It scared the hell out of us," says Agee. "I slept on a straw mat beside Erik for two nights after the accident.

We had to fly him back to San Francisco 'flat' because none of our doctors were sure what was going on with his spine."

Yet Agee bristles at the idea of mismanagement by his coaching staff. "He just missed it," says Agee. "Fact is, he's not very good in the air. His parents complained we'd gotten Erik in over his head. But here's a world-class athlete being supported to the tune of $150,000 a year. He's got to be able to handle stuff like this."

Fitted with a back brace, Schlopy later walked out of the San Francisco hospital. Because of his excellent physical condition before the crash, he was on snow within six months of the accident. He recovered quickly enough to make the 1994 Olympic team, and was again picked for the 1995 World Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain, but the event was cancelled for lack of snow. The curtain seemed to have fallen on Schlopy's World Cup career.

"I was frustrated," he confesses, "and for a while I didn't love ski racing. I walked away from the U.S. Ski Team because I had to."

In 1995, disillusioned with the team, Schlopy hatched an unorthodox plan: Get several guys together, hire a coach and compete on the U.S. Pro Tour. The objective was not just to make money, but to win and eventually work his way back to the U.S. Ski Team for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake.

"It was the only way I thought I could improve outside the U.S. Ski Team environment," says Schlopy. "I thought they might even allow pros in the Olympics by 2002." His All-American team included Jeremy Nobis, who had also never realized his potential on the team.

The pro circuit, now defunct, was generally maligned among World Cup racers as the "has-been-never-will-be tour." Schlopy, on the other hand, had watched the pro finals in Schladming, Austria, the season before. "I saw Bernhard Knauss the tour champion and Sebastian Vitzthum and said, 'Whoa. These guys are good.' I was seriously motivated to learn from these guys."

Unlike the World Cup, where competitors race one or two runs and are done for the day, the pro tour was a war of attrition fought by gladiators. The brutal head-to-head elimination format on parallel courses demanded 10 runs to win. "It's like the difference between a sprinter and an NFL running back," says Schlopy. He was a natural halfback. "The first race I entered I finished second. I ended up sixth for the season and was named Rookie of the Year.

"If there were still a pro tour, it should be the place the U.S. team sends its athletes to develop," Schlopy continues. "It requires a more athletic style. You either succeed or go home with empty pockets. You can't fall. You have to survive 10 heats. Athletes, like animals, adapt, and I adapted fast."

But suddenly Schlopy was without a support system: There was no one to arrange transportation, hotels and meals. He had no technician to prepare his skis. So he tuned and waxed his own. He developed a reverence for the routine. He lugged his own gates and set his own training courses. He would train for at least 10 runs, pack up, find a gym and work out, eat, go to bed and start all over the next day. He networked, training with the Canadians, Slovenians and Swedes. "I figured out how to get more done with less effort," he says. "That was the big lesson."

There were other lessons. Unlike the World Cup, there were deep ruts to contend with. Instead of a single pole for slalom, the pros used double-pole breakaway panels. Cross-blocking with the outside arm, which allows the racer to knock one pole out of the way before skiing past it, was more difficult in the pros. "I needed to use both hands to get through the panel," Schlopy recalls. "That helped me to keep my shoulders level."

Then there were his nemeses: jumps. "The pro jumps there were at least two in every course taught me to be better in the air. Sit back and you fall on the back of your neck and lie there thinking about the dollars you just lost. It forced me to stay forward the whole time. Not just over the jumps, but also in the ruts."

If time spent on the pro tour was not crucible enough, the climb back to the U.S. Ski Team was worse. Hat in hand, Schlopy approached the team and asked to return. No special treatment, he insisted; just a fair shot. They let him begin at the Nor-Am level, skiing's minor leagues, with the maximum 990 FIS points (in ski racing, lower points are better). He started in the back of the pack, in the ruts, ice and chatter marks of deteriorating courses. Kind of like the pro tour.

Desperate to make the U.S. B Team, Schlopy borrowed money from a close friend, bought a condo near team headquarters in Park City, Utah, and hired a coach. His budget was all but zilch.

"I had a tough, tough time that season," he says. "I stayed in people's homes, behind the bowling alley for $20 a night, hit up people I knew to get buddy passes and basically did a lot of long-distance driving." He qualified for the nationals, where he finished sixth in slalom but fell in GS.Schlopy had calculated exactly how low his FIS points needed to be, and what he had to do to achieve his goal of making the U.S. Ski Team once again. The breakthrough came in Lutsen, Minn., of all places. The first day of the final two-race spring series, he ripped a binding from his ski and fell. He glued and helicoiled the screws back into place. The next day he won by 1.5 seconds, a result good enough to boost his FIS point ranking to 96th in the world and onto the B Team. He had come through in the last run of the last race of what otherwise could have been his last season.

Since then, he has rocketed in the rankings. In the World Cup standings last season, Schlopy was the top American, finishing third in GS, 22nd in slalom, and 15th overall. "I'm grateful the team gave me another chance," he says. "I'm not going to let it go. If I can stay healthy, I feel I'm just at the beginning of my World Cup career."

His approach has remained different from other racers. Instead of continent hopping between training in America and races in Europe, Schlopy and teammate Bode Miller rented a farmhouse in Schmirin, near Innsbruck, Austria. While other U.S. athletes struggle with jet lag, long van rides, strange hotels and living out of duffel bags for weeks at a time, Miller and Schlopy return "home" in their own car.

It is a Felix-and-Oscar relationship. Schlopy, who borders on obsessive-compulsive, is a foil for the free-spirited Miller. "Bode has a lot of alternative viewpoints about ski racing and life in quires a more athletic style. You either succeed or go home with empty pockets. You can't fall. You have to survive 10 heats. Athletes, like animals, adapt, and I adapted fast."

But suddenly Schlopy was without a support system: There was no one to arrange transportation, hotels and meals. He had no technician to prepare his skis. So he tuned and waxed his own. He developed a reverence for the routine. He lugged his own gates and set his own training courses. He would train for at least 10 runs, pack up, find a gym and work out, eat, go to bed and start all over the next day. He networked, training with the Canadians, Slovenians and Swedes. "I figured out how to get more done with less effort," he says. "That was the big lesson."

There were other lessons. Unlike the World Cup, there were deep ruts to contend with. Instead of a single pole for slalom, the pros used double-pole breakaway panels. Cross-blocking with the outside arm, which allows the racer to knock one pole out of the way before skiing past it, was more difficult in the pros. "I needed to use both hands to get through the panel," Schlopy recalls. "That helped me to keep my shoulders level."

Then there were his nemeses: jumps. "The pro jumps there were at least two in every course taught me to be better in the air. Sit back and you fall on the back of your neck and lie there thinking about the dollars you just lost. It forced me to stay forward the whole time. Not just over the jumps, but also in the ruts."

If time spent on the pro tour was not crucible enough, the climb back to the U.S. Ski Team was worse. Hat in hand, Schlopy approached the team and asked to return. No special treatment, he insisted; just a fair shot. They let him begin at the Nor-Am level, skiing's minor leagues, with the maximum 990 FIS points (in ski racing, lower points are better). He started in the back of the pack, in the ruts, ice and chatter marks of deteriorating courses. Kind of like the pro tour.

Desperate to make the U.S. B Team, Schlopy borrowed money from a close friend, bought a condo near team headquarters in Park City, Utah, and hired a coach. His budget was all but zilch.

"I had a tough, tough time that season," he says. "I stayed in people's homes, behind the bowling alley for $20 a night, hit up people I knew to get buddy passes and basically did a lot of long-distance driving." He qualified for the nationals, where he finished sixth in slalom but fell in GS.Schlopy had calculated exactly how low his FIS points needed to be, and what he had to do to achieve his goal of making the U.S. Ski Team once again. The breakthrough came in Lutsen, Minn., of all places. The first day of the final two-race spring series, he ripped a binding from his ski and fell. He glued and helicoiled the screws back into place. The next day he won by 1.5 seconds, a result good enough to boost his FIS point ranking to 96th in the world and onto the B Team. He had come through in the last run of the last race of what otherwise could have been his last season.

Since then, he has rocketed in the rankings. In the World Cup standings last season, Schlopy was the top American, finishing third in GS, 22nd in slalom, and 15th overall. "I'm grateful the team gave me another chance," he says. "I'm not going to let it go. If I can stay healthy, I feel I'm just at the beginning of my World Cup career."

His approach has remained different from other racers. Instead of continent hopping between training in America and races in Europe, Schlopy and teammate Bode Miller rented a farmhouse in Schmirin, near Innsbruck, Austria. While other U.S. athletes struggle with jet lag, long van rides, strange hotels and living out of duffel bags for weeks at a time, Miller and Schlopy return "home" in their own car.

It is a Felix-and-Oscar relationship. Schlopy, who borders on obsessive-compulsive, is a foil for the free-spirited Miller. "Bode has a lot of alternative viewpoints about ski racing and life in general," Schlopy says. "But he always gives 100 percent and is committed to raising the level of the whole team.

We learn from our differences." On their alpine farm, livestock share their roof, providing heat as well as odor. Their landlady does laundry, makes their beds and is their severest critic, reminding them in German, when appropriate, "You skied like scheisse."

Which is what happened down the road at the World Alpine Ski Championships in St. Anton in February. After getting the No. 1 bib for the GS, Schlopy skied out of the course after only a handful of gates. He now views it as an omen. "It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I got outside my game plan. I won't ever be freaked out by the No. 1 start number again."

"Once Erik understands what he's got to do, he has strong follow-through," says Jesse Hunt, who coaches the U.S. slalom and GS team. "Then he does it, does it again and again, and never complains."

Hunt is a special coach for Schlopy. Once a top-level racer himself, he understands the athlete's perspective. "We trust each other," Schlopy says. "He treats me like a mature athlete."

Despite his introspection, Schlopy is a team player, counting Daron Rahlves, Casey Puckett, Chip Knight and, of course, Bode Miller as his closest allies. "Everybody's a spoke in the wheel," he says.

What elevates Schlopy above the pack is his process-orientation. He is a meticulous planner, an ardent grinder. "When I have failed, it's because I didn't take all the proper steps. Speed is a byproduct, and results are slaves to preparation.

"You can be told 'Get forward!' or 'Stand on the outside ski!' a thousand times, but until you know what that feels like, you don't have it. Then when you feel it, that's just the beginning. You need to reproduce the feeling 10,000 times."

Living in Austria has allowed him to train beside Hermann Maier and the rest of the Austrian juggernaut, and to gauge his progress. He has held his own. When Schlopy ended the 2001 season third to Maier, the champion hoisted the newcomer on his shoulders. The Austrians kidded that perhaps they shouldn't allow the American to train with them anymore.

What's more, Austria's Atomic ski company, the dominant force in racing today, now provides Schlopy with excellent skis. "The faster I ski, the better skis I get," says Schlopy, who no longer has to tune them himself.All the pieces appear to be in place. To make Olympic predictions, however, is to look beyond the process, something Schlopy has learned not to do. He amassed great personal debt in his comeback, but has earned enough to pay off his loans and go into the black. "I look at it as an investment in myself," he says.

His father, Kent, worries about the brief window of financial opportunity at the Olympics. Schlopy is less concerned, but aware. "Any athlete has a short career," he says. "We don't get educated like college football players. There are not a lot of bucks in ski racing. Can you imagine being third in the world in tennis or golf? The financial rewards would be so huge.

"So with the Olympics, I need to make the best of them. My goal was to go into Salt Lake City with a realistic opportunity to do well, to raise my ranking. To win a medal you probably have to start in the top 15. And let's face it: The Olympics aren't about fourth. They're about one, two and three... Really it's about first."

Schlopy met his fiancée, Lynch, at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego. She was a World University Champion in the 5K run from Villanova, and in 1996, People magazine named her one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the world. She has a calming effect on the usually introverted and intense Schlopy. "She wants me to stay healthy and to follow my goals. She doesn't care if I'm a janitor. We have similar interests and just like to spend time together." They do so in places such as Innsbruck, Venice, Fiji and Hawaii. "Ultimately," says Schlopy, "I want to have a family, go bacck to school and not have to work the night shift someplace.

"I do what makes me happy," Schlopy says. "I don't do what I do for others. I would like to inspire others with my story. A lot of people give up on things, for various reasons, before they succeed. Let them say about Erik Schlopy, 'Everybody thought he was washed up, but he came back and did it.'"eral," Schlopy says. "But he always gives 100 percent and is committed to raising the level of the whole team.

We learn from our differences." On their alpine farm, livestock share their roof, providing heat as well as odor. Their landlady does laundry, makes their beds and is their severest critic, reminding them in German, when appropriate, "You skied like scheisse."

Which is what happened down the road at the World Alpine Ski Championships in St. Anton in February. After getting the No. 1 bib for the GS, Schlopy skied out of the course after only a handful of gates. He now views it as an omen. "It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I got outside my game plan. I won't ever be freaked out by the No. 1 start number again."

"Once Erik understands what he's got to do, he has strong follow-through," says Jesse Hunt, who coaches the U.S. slalom and GS team. "Then he does it, does it again and again, and never complains."

Hunt is a special coach for Schlopy. Once a top-level racer himself, he understands the athlete's perspective. "We trust each other," Schlopy says. "He treats me like a mature athlete."

Despite his introspection, Schlopy is a team player, counting Daron Rahlves, Casey Puckett, Chip Knight and, of course, Bode Miller as his closest allies. "Everybody's a spoke in the wheel," he says.

What elevates Schlopy above the pack is his process-orientation. He is a meticulous planner, an ardent grinder. "When I have failed, it's because I didn't take all the proper steps. Speed is a byproduct, and results are slaves to preparation.

"You can be told 'Get forward!' or 'Stand on the outside ski!' a thousand times, but until you know what that feels like, you don't have it. Then when you feel it, that's just the beginning. You need to reproduce the feeling 10,000 times."

Living in Austria has allowed him to train beside Hermann Maier and the rest of the Austrian juggernaut, and to gauge his progress. He has held his own. When Schlopy ended the 2001 season third to Maier, the champion hoisted the newcomer on his shoulders. The Austrians kidded that perhaps they shouldn't allow the American to train with them anymore.

What's more, Austria's Atomic ski company, the dominant force in racing today, now provides Schlopy with excellent skis. "The faster I ski, the better skis I get," says Schlopy, who no longer has to tune them himself.All the pieces appear to be in place. To make Olympic predictions, however, is to look beyond the process, something Schlopy has learned not to do. He amassed great personal debt in his comeback, but has earned enough to pay off his loans and go into the black. "I look at it as an investment in myself," he says.

His father, Kent, worries about the brief window of financial opportunity at the Olympics. Schlopy is less concerned, but aware. "Any athlete has a short career," he says. "We don't get educated like college football players. There are not a lot of bucks in ski racing. Can you imagine being third in the world in tennis or golf? The financial rewards would be so huge.

"So with the Olympics, I need to make the best of them. My goal was to go into Salt Lake City with a realistic opportunity to do well, to raise my ranking. To win a medal you probably have to start in the top 15. And let's face it: The Olympics aren't about fourth. They're about one, two and three... Really it's about first."

Schlopy met his fiancée, Lynch, at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego. She was a World University Champion in the 5K run from Villanova, and in 1996, People magazine named her one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the world. She has a calming effect on the usually introverted and intense Schlopy. "She wants me to stay healthy and to follow my goals. She doesn't care if I'm a janitor. We have similar interests and just like to spend time together." They do so in places such as Innsbruck, Venice, Fiji and Hawaii. "Ultimately," says Schlopy, "I want to have a family, go back to school and not have to work the night shift someplace.

"I do what makes me happy," Schlopy says. "I don't do what I do for others. I would like to inspire others with my story. A lot of people give up on things, for various reasons, before they succeed. Let them say about Erik Schlopy, 'Everybody thought he was washed up, but he came back and did it.'" to have a family, go back to school and not have to work the night shift someplace.

"I do what makes me happy," Schlopy says. "I don't do what I do for others. I would like to inspire others with my story. A lot of people give up on things, for various reasons, before they succeed. Let them say about Erik Schlopy, 'Everybody thought he was washed up, but he came back and did it.'"

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