Maribor, Slovenia Jan. 7--"Oh, man...it's about time." Sarah Schleper (Vail, CO) let out a sigh of relief Thursday and savored the moment after posting the first top-10 of her young career as she finished seventh in a sunny World Cup slalom on an icy hill before more than 10,000 wildly cheering fans. On a second course set by U.S. Coach Georg Capaul, Schleper had the fastest time and led the best U.S. showing of the season.
Trine Bakke of Norway collected the second World Cup triumph of her career as she won both runs for a total time of 1:41.90. Slovenia'sSpela Pretnar was second (1:42.77) and Sebine Egger of Austria - who won last week's SL in Lienz, Austria - was third (1:42.99). WhenEgger won in Lienz, 21 women were within 1.2 seconds of her; Thursday, three racers were within 1.2 of the winner.
Schleper led three teammates into the top 25: Kristina Koznick (Burnsville, MN) was 15th with a 1:44.75 clocking; Caroline Lalive(Steamboat Springs, CO), who was forced to miss the Lienz races after coming down with a heavy cold over Christmas, finished 22nd in1:1:46.02 after starting 54th; and Tasha Nelson (Mound, MN), out for a month after rolling an ankle in November, was 25th in 1:46.96.Fifteen-year-old World Cup newcomer Julia Mancuso (Tahoe City, CA) was a DNF.
"I've been kinda struggling with my mind lately - my confidence, that attitude I have in the start," Schleper said. "I haven't been as confident, so today I just tried to pump myself up. I took in the best attitude I could find: 'I'm a good skier...I love ruts...I can do it.' Everything you want to think about and if I started to get some fluff distraction, I'd push it away."
She was understandably pleased about her first top 10. "Yeah, I skipped my first top-15 and went right to top-10. I really have to keepworking on my mental game because, I'm telling ya, it's 100 percent mental, nothing else."
Schleper, the 1997 World Junior Championships slalom silver medalist, whose giant slalom skills have picked up dramatically in the lastthree years, paused as she recalled the feeling in the finish area. She'd started 15th on the second run and was first when she finished. Itwas really strange. I've always given up my lead, but I saw 'No. 1' so I knew right away I was top 15."
"This is such a head game. Last week in Lienz I was 32nd. I don't want that to happen again." She'll need another strong SL result toanchor her confidence, Schleper said, but Thursday will be a monster boost for her; one goal this season is to be in the World Cup Finals(i.e., top 25 skiers) in March and her seventh puts her in 21st place in points with another SL - the sixth of the season - on the weekend. "Istarted 34th as usual and I told myself 'If you get 25th, you'll still be 34th, so put your money on the line. Go!' That's been playing with mymind, getting into the top 30, finishing so I'd get World Cup points, but I'm not taking that attitude ever again," Schleper said.
A leader in time trials through the summer and fall, she struggled early in the season and has ridden an emotional roller coaster with acouple of good results among some disappointments this season. "I know I can train fast. Yeah, it's been a ride but I'm really taking it for aride now"-for better results.
She also was energized by the good skiing from her teammates. "I think we came over after Christmas and didn't have much time andweren't focused for the races in Lienz. Here, we got our act together. I saw 'Liner' Lalive had an awesome run, Tasha made it in there,Koz...that just made it that much more real."
"Sarah was awesome," said U.S. Head Coach Marjan Cernigoj. "She had a dream run, top to bottom. She was charging and never let up. Imean, it was mistake-free; it was the best we've seen from her. Kristina skied too precisely on her second run. I didn't think she let her skis go; she didn't make any major mistakes like her first run where she made a big one that cost two-, maybe three-tenths where shenonetheless was seventh...but she over-turned, she was finishing her turns too long and that adds up over the length of any course."
Capaul, the women's SL/GS coach who put the U.S. skiers through rigorous training over New Year's after the frustrations of Lienz, agreed. Koznick had been 28th and Schleper 29th Wednesday in Maribor's traditional giant slalom "it fell apart because they were charging so hard; we said Wednesday night it was no time to lose our drive, still time to go! This was a good payoff. We trained for four days when a lot of other people weren't," according to Capaul, "and the girls worked very hard. And then Sarah almost went into a fence in GS and Kristina chopped her edges really hard, and it was disappointing."
He said Lalive's result "absolutely surprised us; it was unexpected. We expect it from her in GS, but in slalom it's not so sure - especiallywith the sore shin and scraped hands from her fall in Wednesday's race. She was banged up, but Jody Demaere, team physio put herback together. She did a good job and Liner was outstanding."
He laughed at Nelson's wild first run, which landed her in 29th spot. "It wasn't pretty, but nobody's asking how you made it into the top 30cutoff - and she made it. On the second run, Tasha skied well and outskied several others to move up four places. And Julia...she'swonderful. She's got her eyes wide open, for sure, but that's the experience we want her to have. She's a wonderful kid, but the girls totally respect what she can do. There's nothing in North America for her, doing well in NorAms won't benefit her - at this point - as much asgetting this experience. Qualifying is not why she's here, it's to get experience...and she's drinking it in, and she'll get some more inBerchtesgaden this weekend."
"It was a great race, a nice show for two days. This was the 36th annual World Cup in Maribor - the longest-running stop on the women's schedule," said Cernigoj, a Slovenian by birth who first came here during the 1981 season when he was a young coach.
Race coverage will be on the Outdoor Life Network tonight at 8 p.m. EST; OLN will broadcast highlights of a giant slalom Wednesday at 8p.m. with slalom coverage starting at 9 p.m.
The Cafe de Colombia women's schedule heads to Berchtesgaden, Germany, for another GS/SL menu - the third straight gate-runningtandem after Lienz and Maribor.