The guys around Erik Schlopy's Harlem neighborhood would watch him curiously as he went through his workout routine last summer. They'd see him do squats while balanced on railings; they'd see him quickstep up and down stairs; they'd see him furiously pedal his wife's basket-and bell-equipped girl's bike around the Central Park loop like Mary Poppins on speed. And they'd ask him, "What are you, a boxer?" Schlopy would usually say yes rather than explain that he was a world-class skier who was used to doing things the hard way.
Schlopy did it the hard way again at the World Cup giant slalom race in his former hometown of Park City, Utah, last Friday when he emerged from the 41st start position to finish fifth on the sunbaked course, the top performance by an American and his best World Cup finish since March 2001. "I had confidence going into this race, but I didn't think it would go as well as it did, starting where I was starting," said Schlopy, who at 30 is the second-oldest skier on the U.S. men's Alpine team. "Something like this can launch me into a lot of great results."
Schlopy's two strong runs in the GS revealed some much needed depth in a U.S. men's team that had been, with the exception of a fifth-place finish by Olympic double silver medalist Bode Miller, a huge disappointment at the World Cup GS opener in Soelden, Austria, in October. When Miller lost a ski early in his first run on Friday, the team appeared headed for another mediocre performance. Then Schlopy delivered. "It's fantastic to have another guy slam right in there, take the spotlight and have a great day," says men's Alpine coach Phil McNichol, who had two other skiers, Dane Spencer and Thomas Vonn, finish in the top 27. "I'm not surprised it was Erik because he's clearly good enough to dominate at the World Cup level. But because he has been struggling, I was just hoping for him to have a good day, a top 10 finish."
After ranking third in the world in the giant slalom in 2001, the best GS showing by an American man since 1983, Schlopy entered last season as an Olympic medal favorite, the hometown hero whose picture would be plastered all over the sides of buses in Park City in February. But while fighting bronchitis and a tenacious fatigue that came on in August 2001 and was belatedly diagnosed as mononucleosis, he missed weeks of training and turned in consistently subpar performances on the World Cup tour. After eight top 10s in the 2000-01 season, he had zero last season. "I was thinking there was something seriously wrong with me," says Schlopy, who finished a disappointing 13th in the Olympic slalom. "Maybe it was just that I hadn't recovered from all that sickness and was out of shape from missing all that training. Or maybe not. You start second-guessing yourself. People told me I wasn't trying hard enough. So I tried harder, and that just made it worse. I learned a lesson—if I'm going to win races, it won't be by trying harder, it'll be by eliminating mistakes, by making choices to take chances in places I can, by following a process."
This isn't the first time Schlopy, a Buffalo native who adheres to that city's blue-collar work ethic, has overcome challenges in his career. At the 1993 world championships he suffered a broken back and displaced sternum in a downhill training run, but he rebounded to make the Lillehammer Olympics, at which he finished 34th in the GS. After leaving the U.S. team for four years and racing on the pro circuit, he rejoined the squad in '99 in anticipation of the Salt Lake Games. From a world ranking of 136th in the GS in '99, he climbed to third two years later. "What's the disadvantage of being ranked last in the world and starting in the back of the pack in skiing?" asks Schlopy. "I think of a tennis analogy: You have to play all the best guys, but someone has taken a shovel and made a bunch of holes and pockmarks on your side of the court so the ball bounces funny."
So maybe it wasn't much of a stretch for Schlopy to find a skier's dryland training paradise in potholed New York City, where he moved last summer with his wife, Nnenna Lynch-Schlopy, a Big Apple native and former middle-distance runner who's now a financial analyst at Goldman, Sachs. "I made a commitment to living in New York, so I have to make it work for me," says Schlopy, who shares an apartment with Miller near Innsbruck, Austria, during the World Cup season. "Honestly, it's a little scary. It's all new. I don't have any ski-racing buddies to work out with, and I don't have that support from my family that I had when I lived in Park City. But I think I'm going to be better for it in the long run." One might argue that he already is.