Mexican cross-country skier won’t let pain, age or failure end her Olympic dream
Chaucer wrote that time and tide wait for no man. But he didn’t say anything about women, and that’s a loophole Karla Schleske believes is big enough to accommodate her dream of skiing in the Winter Olympics.
It won’t happen this year. Schleske hit her head while taking a spill in her final qualifying race for the Beijing Games earlier this month. But she’s convinced her dream has only been delayed, not denied. Time, she says, will wait for her.
“This is not over,” she promised. “I will focus on the next one. And for sure there are future Cups and world championships.”
Schleske is an uncommon Winter Olympic hopeful, and not just because she took up skiing last February, a year before the Beijing Games were scheduled to open. There’s also her age — at 39, she’s 12 years older than the average Olympic medalist in cross-country skiing.
Donovan Carrillo, who is the best ice skater in Mexican history and trains at a shopping mall rink, is headed to Beijing. It’s taken lots of perseverance.
Then there’s the fact that skiing is her second-best sport. Eighth-best, really, when you consider she was a two-time Mexican champion and national record-holder in the seven-event heptathlon. However her best score, posted when she won her second consecutive national title in 2011, was 694 points shy of the Olympic qualifying standard for the 2012 London Games.
In a 15-year career, she never got closer. So after a terrifying epileptic seizure in 2019 caused her to lose consciousness, she gave up track and field and her quest to reach the Summer Games and decided to give the Winter Games a try instead.
“I went to the doctor and I talked to him about this crazy goal that I want to be an Olympian. So I asked him, ‘Can I still do it?’” she recalled. “He said ‘I cannot be 100% sure this is never going to happen again. Just be careful.’ So I was like, ‘OK, I’m doing this. I don’t care.’”
First, however, she had to find out what the Winter Games were. Just six Mexican women have competed in a Winter Olympics and no Mexican has medaled there, with the country’s best finish coming in 1928 when its five-man bobsleigh team finished 11th.
“I was so excited to be able to make history and just kind of start something new,” she said. “I wanted to do this for my country, for women, for me. I have a chance, a big opportunity, because no one’s doing this.”
Schleske had been on skis once, when she was 7. “That doesn’t count, I think,” she says now.
She decided to focus on cross-country skiing because it relies on some of the same traits — adaptation, determination, focus and repetitive movements — she had perfected in track. She was also helped by the fact she was a natural athlete from an athletic family.
“In my country and in my culture, you can do whatever you want. It’s just you have to put the effort in, you have to keep working for it.”
— Karla Schleske
Her father, Santiago, played American football, her mother, María, competed in track and a grandfather was a triathlete. Karla, her mother said, was hyperactive as a child and attended college on a basketball scholarship. She didn’t begin taking track seriously until after she graduated, yet by 2011 she was representing Mexico in the Pan American Games, where she finished eighth.
Still, just how big a challenge her pursuit of a Winter Olympics berth would be didn’t hit her until the first time she took the ski equipment she had ordered by mail to a park near her home in Veracruz (average winter temperature: 81 degrees; average winter snowfall: are you serious?) to try it out.
“Some kids looked at me and they’re like, ‘What is that?’” she said. “They asked me what I was doing because they have never seen that.”
Clearly learning to ski on the Gulf of Mexico wasn’t realistic.
“Then COVID happened,” she said.
For much of 2020, the pandemic limited where she could go, delaying the start of her new career for more than a year. Last February she finally wound up on snow in Breckenridge, Colo., where she hit the cross-country trails for the first time. A month later she took part in her first International Ski Federation race.
But when spring came, both the snow and Schleske’s savings were mostly gone so a relative suggested she relocate to Anchorage, where she had an aunt.
“I had no idea about that,” she said by phone from Alaska. “So I ended up here.”
She also had no idea about the wildlife in Alaska. The first time she came across a moose “I thought it was a donkey. Just sort of normal,” she said. “And then I’m like, ‘OK, wait. You’re not in Mexico. That’s not a donkey.’”
Less frightening was the coach she found, a former Polish national champion and World Cup competitor named Jan Buron. In more than three decades in cross-country skiing, Buron, a four-time U.S. coach of the year, had never seen anything like Schleske.
“She’s already 39 years old and you know, a totally new sport. And she never skied before this year,” he said. “It’s a big challenge. I can tell you.”
“For her, the bigger obstacles is downhill skiing and endurance,” he added. “In track and field, she ran 800 meters; that was the longest distance she had to go. And here you have super-hard courses. Cross-country skiing compared to track and field, it’s a much harder sport.”
Another obstacle is funding. Schleske doesn’t have a major sponsor and is getting by mostly with financial help from family and friends — and free coaching.
In December, after six months working with Buron gratis in Anchorage, Schleske won her first Mexican skiing title in a race held more than 1,500 miles from the Mexican border in British Columbia. There were just seven people in the competition and she was the only woman but that did little to tarnish the gold medal, which she accepted with an oversized sombrero on her head and a Mexican flag in her hands.
This month’s U.S. Championships in Utah, marked just her seventh ski event — as well as her final chance to complete her Hail Mary prayer of qualifying for Beijing.
Tianjin, home to 14 million residents, is under partial lockdown after 40 test positive for the coronavirus, including some with the Omicron variant.
It didn’t go well, with Schleske, seven years older than anybody else in the 123-woman field, finishing last in the 10-kilometer race after tumbling down a hill on the first lap of three laps.
But she finished.
“I was almost hitting the grass with my poles because the snow was melting,” she said. “One of my skis just went in the wrong way and so … I’m going down the hill on my head. It was pretty bad.
“I got up and I’m like, ‘OK, let’s keep going’ and just pretty much tried to do my best.”
She’ll need that kind of grit and determination if she hopes to make good on her longshot dream of becoming an Olympian four years from now in Milan, Italy. And even while he admits the odds are impossibly long, Buron isn’t willing to bet against his pupil.
“She looks much better right now,” he said. “She looks like a cross-country skier right now. [She was] somebody who didn’t know how to how to do it six months ago. Her technique is better.”
“Let’s see,” he continued. “If she has the passion and help, maybe. Maybe.”
Schleske is far more confident.
Jason Brown and Vincent Zhou, who finished behind runner-up Ilia Malinin, are nominated along with national champion Nathan Chen for U.S. Olympic team.
“It feels like soooo possible,” she said in her sing-song English, which she learned as a high school exchange student in Seattle, then perfected during extended periods training for track in Ottawa and Phoenix. “I can totally see me at the Olympics. I’ve [moved] forward within months. Now having years? Ohmigod, like yeah.”
If she can see herself in the Winter Olympics a month shy of her 44th birthday, what about the little girls in Mexico — and elsewhere — who will be watching her on TV? That’s the thought that helped Schleske climb back on her skis and finish that race in Utah.
Winning, after all, is easy. Pushing through adversity is what makes you a champion.
“In my country and in my culture, you can do whatever you want,” she said. “It’s just you have to put the effort in, you have to keep working for it. But you cannot [say,] ‘It’s so far. I’m just going to give up.’ To make the difference, to be able to do it, you just have to keep going.”
Especially since Schleske has time and the tide on her side.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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