His dad was a place kicker for the Buffalo Bills, his mother is a two-time Olympian, his cousin (also an Olympian) won an alpine world championship bronze medal in giant slalom, and by his cousin’s marriage, he is also related to the swimmer Summer Sanders who won four Olympic medals in 1992.
But this year, 18-year-old Alex Schlopy has come into his own.
|Alex Schlopy celebrates on the winners' podium after the slopestyle competition for the FIS Freestyle World Championships. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
During 15 days in January and February, the free skier from Park City, Utah, won gold at the Winter X Games, gold at the world championships, and first place at a Dew Tour event.
And on April 5-6, the International Olympic Committee is expected to decide whether Schlopy’s best event (skiing slopestyle) will be added to the 2014 Sochi Games.
“If they do it right,” Schlopy said, “it could be very good for our sport.”
In slopestyle, skiers perform tricks over obstacles (like rails, tables, and boxes) and spin and flip over huge gaps. Judges reward fluidity, clean technique, and innovation to determine the scores. Unlike halfpipe, however, slopestyle is contested down the full length of a ski slope.
“We aren’t necessarily all about competition,” Schlopy said of his peers, and “if they [the IOC] can accept our style, it could be cool. I think snowboarding did a good job with it.”
From Tumbling to Twin Tips
Schlopy was a wiry kid, growing up with an older sister and a younger brother in the heart of Utah ski country. His parents taught him to ski at age 2, but racing held no appeal despite his family’s history on the US Ski Team. His mother, Holly Flanders, won three World Cup downhill races and competed at the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Winter Games. His father’s cousin, Erik Schlopy, was a three-time Olympian in the technical events. His aunt, Deb Flanders, made the US Ski Team at 18 and went on to coach at several ski academies.
After one race, however, Schlopy knew he didn’t want to spend his life dodging gates.
“It didn’t make me happy,” he said of his lone giant slalom.
But he loved jumping, and soon, one trampoline in the yard became two and he was constantly airborne. He would launch off the deck, or hurl himself from one trampoline to the other.
Mike Hanley, his first gymnastics coach in Park City, had heard about Alex even before he saw him.
“The owner [of Black Diamond Gymnastics] told me this kid should be on the competition team. I said, ‘Did he just move here?’ He said, ‘No, you’ll understand when you see him.’”
“Yeah, right,” Hanley thought.
When the 8-year-old-old Schlopy came in, “he was a skeleton with muscles stuck on. Not one ounce of body fat,” Hanley recalled.
And while the 12-year-olds were running down the tumble track and into a foam pit, progressing from front flip, twisting flip, double flip, to double-twisting flip, Schlopy started doing standing backflips while he was waiting.
“Coach, is this right?” he asked Hanley.
“I thought, ’What ARE you?’” Hanley said. “He was ungodly talented. If I could think of it, he could do it.”
Schlopy also had a remarkable energy level.
“Rambunctious is beyond an understatement,” Hanley said.
Joss Christensen has known Schlopy since pre-school and said that’s still the case. “He loves fidgeting. He’ll stay on the trampoline for as long as he can. And he’s always eating ALL my food at my house.”
Soon, Schlopy was winning age-group competitions in trampoline and tumbling but found gymnastics to be repetitive and regimented. Hanley suggested he take his acrobatic skills to the snow, and at age 11, Schlopy traded in his short-shorts for twin-tip skis.
At 14, he won the 2007 Vermont Open, a professional slopestyle event.
“Everyone thought that would be his breakout year,” Hanley said.
Schlopy attracted ski, goggle, and clothing sponsors, and made his ski-film debut in “Lost and Found” by Teton Gravity Research.
But seven months later, in October, Schlopy was a passenger in a car accident that left him with a serious concussion and amnesia for three days.
By January 2008, he was skiing again but “I still wasn’t mentally clear,” he said.
In a halfpipe at Breckenridge, Colorado, Schlopy got lost in the air while doing a trick. He landed on his back, blew out the ligaments in his right knee, and suffered another concussion.
“I skied down and limped to the base,” he said. “I was just confused and in denial.”
“I didn’t leave my room for three to six months because of my head,” he said. “I got dizzy when I’d go outside. Things were blurry. They said it was post-concussion disorder syndrome. All light bothered me. I got vertigo. I didn’t know if I’d be able to ski.”
“He didn’t feel safe outside his room,” his mother said. “He’d say he felt like he was hanging upside down off the ceiling when he was sitting in a chair. He looked and spoke fine. He just felt awful all the time.”
Classes at his winter sports school were set to begin in April. “He said he couldn’t sit through class and focus,” his mother said. “It was hard. Do you force him to go to school or rest? But he really couldn’t go. [Doctors] were saying he needed to go to counseling to learn how to deal with his symptoms.”
Slowly, the symptoms began to subside.
“I had to ease back into things,” Schlopy said. “I started skateboarding just to get out and do anything. The more comfortable I got, the more and more it kinda faded away.
“I still don’t feel 100 percent, but way better than I did then. Now I love being outside. I just wear a helmet and basically try to avoid landing on my head.”
In 2010, Schlopy finished high school (although he has two credits remaining), hired a sports agent, and headed into the best season of his life.
|Alex Schlopy competes in the slopestyle finals for the 2011 FIS Freestyle World Championships at Park City Mountain Resort. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Fifteen Days of Glory
In his Winter X Games debut, in Aspen, Colorado, Schlopy wasn’t even supposed to compete in Big Air on January 29, 2011, but when a few athletes were injured, the rookie was in.
In the one-hit Big Air final, the 6-foot-tall Schlopy spun through the night sky in a white coat and banana-yellow pants, producing a spotless double-cork 1620 mute grab, then cleanly landed the four-and-a-half revolution spin backwards.
He had never tried the trick until that night.
“For Alex not to practice and pull it out of nowhere is common,” said Christensen, who was watching it on TV at home in Park City.
Afterwards, Schlopy was nearly speechless.
“I’d been watching the X Games for so long, that to win that was mind-blowing and unexpected,” Schlopy said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t see that coming for a long time.”
Less than a week later, Schlopy once again got off to an inauspicious start at a major event. On home snow in Park City, in the first skiing slopestyle competition ever held at the FIS Freestyle World Championships, Schlopy squeaked into the 10-man final, qualifying ninth.
But in the final, on February 3, Schlopy added a few more rotations to his spins. He flung a 270-disaster on the down-flat-down rail, followed by a frontside-450 out of the flat rail to gap, then a blind-450 out of the up-rail, to a 360 off of the butter box, a leftside-900 (instead of a 540), a switch-1260 (instead of a switch-900), and finally, a double-cork-1260.
Translation: gold medal, world champion.
“He was due,” said Hanley, who is now the president of Windells academy, an action sports camp in Oregon.
But still, the world title and the concept of representing the US felt a bit foreign. “Since it was so new, I didn’t know the significance of it,” Schlopy said.
Yet the slopestyle ace earned even more legitimacy 10 days later at a Dew Tour stop in Snowbasin, Utah (about 65 miles northwest of Park City).
Before Schlopy’s final run, his buddy Christensen was in first place.
“I was really, really, really stoked for him,” Schlopy said.
But then, Schlopy punctuated his run with a switch-1440 mute grab on the final hit and was golden – again.
“I don’t think I’ve beaten him in two years,” said Christensen, the runner-up.
Will the Legacy Continue?
“He is way ahead of me,” said Flanders, referring to her son’s progress. Flanders herself made the US Ski Team at 18, made her Olympic debut at Lake Placid at 22, and won her first World Cup race at 24.
But not just because of his skiing resume.
“It’s crazy because four or five years ago, he was doing double-cork 1440s,” Hanley said. “That’s what they do in Big Air now.”
“He’s a work horse,” Hanley added. “He trains till his body physically can’t take it – and keeping up with him creativity-wise, is hard.”
|Alex Schlopy competes during slopestyle qualification for the FIS Freestyle World Championships at Park City Mountain Resort on February 2, 2011. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Flanders, for one, would love to see skiing slopestyle added to the Games, even though it took her a while to understand that slopestyle skiers can excel by coaching themselves and their friends.
“I kept thinking he needed to be in a program,” she said. “But I learned early on to let him take the reins. I have a lot of trust in Alex. He’s got a good sense about what he needs to do. And the things these guys do, are AMAZING.
“I think I would have been WAY into it if [slopestyle] was around when I was around,” Flanders said.
Schlopy has yet to take his mother into the terrain park, however. “I should,” he said. “My mom’s not scared of much. It would be interesting.”
And while the two haven’t really discussed the prospect of the Olympics, Flanders said, “I hope they say yes. I’d love to see him get to the pinnacle of his sport.
“There will be pressure to be more intense. In my ski racing career when I got more intense, I didn’t do as well. It’s going to be up to the guys to keep it relaxed. That’s the challenge.”
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.