Money in the Bank
Out of debt and living the good life, slalom skier Erik Schlopy is a U.S. medal threat
Erik Schlopy was living the life of the ski star last Saturday in Aspen. He went to physiotherapy to get the kinks out, giving his ski sponsor's serviceman time to wax his skis and clean his boots. Later he signed posters bearing his likeness before returning to the lodging the U.S. ski team had provided him: a large room with a kitchen, stereo and fireplace. The first time he saw his digs, says Schlopy, 29, "I was sure I'd walked into the wrong place. Things used to be a lot different."
After a season in which he placed third in the World Cup standings in giant slalom—the best finish by a U.S. man in that discipline in 18 years—Schlopy, the team's best technical and least conventional racer, has earned such pampering. This season he has won two slaloms, at Nor Am races in Loveland, Colo., on Nov. 15 and 16.
Growing up near Buffalo (and later in Stowe, Vt.), Schlopy was skiing when he was 18 months old and on the national team at 18 years old. He won U.S. titles in giant slalom and Super G at 19. At the 1993 worlds in Japan, Schlopy, an inexperienced downhiller, had a horrific crash in downhill training, puncturing a lung and suffering fractures in his back, ribs and sternum. He came back to make the '94 Olympic team, but after feeling increasingly unhappy with U.S. ski team officials, he left the team in '95 to join the World Pro Ski Tour, a rebel circuit that featured head-to-head races on short courses with seven-foot jumps.
"They called it the Roach Motel of the ski world," says Schlopy, who had to take care of his own lodging, transportation and equipment. He won a world pro tide in 1996-97 but grossed less than $100,000 in three years on the circuit and spent it all on expenses. In the winter of 1997-98 he slept in a closet at a condo in Waterville Valley, N.H., that he shared with eight Swedish racers.
That year Schlopy joined forces with Dean Nicholas, a 68-year-old Romanian-born engineer turned counselor who had worked with other athletes. Nicholas became a second father to Schlopy, giving him what Nicholas describes as "a road map for his life." Nicholas prescribed a diet rich in soy, coaxed Schlopy into becoming an optimist and altered his balance on skis until, Nicholas says, "Erik could fall in love with his toes inside his boots."
Schlopy requalified for the U.S. team in '98 but was ranked so low that in World Cup races he skied with the also-rans on snow that earlier competitors had reduced to icy ruts. He was $30,000 in debt. At Apex Mountain in British Columbia in January '99, he left his $30-a-night hotel to go for a jog, spotted a motel en route with $19 rooms and promptly moved to the cheaper place.
On the snow, though, Schlopy's improvement was significant. "His touch on the snow, his transitions between turns—he doesn't lose anything from one rut to the next," says U.S. teammate Bode Miller. "He does it with such fluidity?"
Respect from top skiers came grudgingly. "When we trained with the Austrians," says Schlopy, "I would see [two-time Olympic champion] Hermann Maier, but he wouldn't see me." By the time Schlopy placed fourth in a World Cup giant slalom in Park City, Utah, a year ago, Maier had taken notice. "Maybe we have to stop training together," Maier said after the race. "His time comes."
Since then Schlopy has hired an agent, made more than $150,000, gotten out of debt and become engaged to Nnenna Lynch, a former Rhodes scholar who ran for the U.S. at the world cross-country championships from 1996 to '98. The wedding will be sometime after the Olympics, at which Schlopy will be a threat to win a medal in slalom and giant slalom. The honeymoon spot should be a nice upgrade from the Roach Motel.