Ever since Erik Schlopy’s kids clicked into skis when they were 2 years old, he’s only had one goal for them … that they would grow to love the sport.
“Obviously living in Park City and having access to skiing, just like any other sport, the earlier you start, the better feel you have for it. It’s like learning a language,” Schlopy says.
Schlopy, who retired from racing in 2009 at age 36 after a long career that included seven national titles, three Olympic Games and a World Championship bronze medal is married to Olympic swimmer and double gold medalist Summer Sanders. The two have introduced their children, Skye, 14, and Spider, 12, to a great many sports and activities in addition to skiing and swimming and yes, learning other languages.
“The priority Summer and I have with our kids is learning activities that are lifetime pursuits,” Schlopy says. “They’ve played baseball, soccer, volleyball, as many sports as possible. I’m not going to force them to do things they don’t want to do.”
As it turns out, skiing is something they still want to do.
After their first couple of years on the slopes as toddlers, Skye and Spider’s parents asked if they’d be interested in joining a club or team with other kids. Young as they were, they knew they had a decent in-house instructor.
“We always said, do you want to do a program? They said no. They wanted me to ski with them. For better or worse, that’s what happened. I’m like guys, there are great instructors out there. You’re going to be chasing other kids around the mountain. You’re going to have a blast. With me, we got a really early start. It was a slow start, but we had a blast.”
More than speed or technique, when taking kids onto the slopes – whether his own or someone else’s – Schlopy has made sure fun is the key focus.
“Even if I go coach U18, I’m like guys, we’re so lucky to be out here skiing. We go to have a good time. I make them do whirlybirds. I’m like tree trails, they’re the best … let’s do those! Let’s do tucking on this last pitch. I’m still a kid when I go out on my skis – actually, most of the time, in everything. It’s all just a big playground for me. I shared that with my kids. There was never any, ‘we’re going to do drills today.’ It was always just, look, I just want you guys to love the sport. If I drive you out of enjoyment, I lose all of that and so do you.”
Choosing the right program
After their father imparted this approach and attitude to skiing early on, Skye and Spider joined Park City’s Farm Team. Although the team is designed for “competitive” children between 7 and 11 years old, the team’s “primary goal is to instill enthusiasm for skiing and improve sound basic skiing skills for racing.” From there, Skye and Spider went on to join Park City Ski & Snowboard’s Devo program. Helmed by Dar Hendrickson, the one-year, part-time program aligned with Schlopy and Sanders’ general approach to parenting.
“Dar has been the coach for years. Ted Ligety, TJ Lanning, a bunch of people came through Devo. Dar gives the kids really good life lessons. The No. 1 thing is if a parent is caught carrying the kid’s equipment, the kid has to walk to 7-Eleven – like a half-mile away – and back in their ski boots. It’s all about being self-aware and responsible for your equipment and yourself,” Schlopy says. “You’ve got to buckle your own boots, take care of yourself, get around the mountain alone and enjoy it, whether it’s racing, powder skiing, trees, all if it.”
Broadening a world view
Skye and Spider went through the Devo program last year, following a year living in northern Spain, where the entire family sharpened its Spanish skills and had the time of its life.
“We were on the coast, not in a ski town. We went to Wengen, saw the Lauberhorn, but the kids skied five days total all year,” Schlopy says. “Their Spanish was good coming into it. Then they went to public school and nobody spoke English. It was so cool. If people have the means and time, there’s no experience that has deeper meaning or impact for your kids.”
After returning from Spain and getting back to their three-day-a-week winter ski regiment (prior to COVID-19 cutting the season short), Skye and Spider rekindled their love of the sport. Skye, who has developed an even more intense passion for horses, will continue a part-time ski program this season while Spider will join Park City’s full-time race program.
“My son is 12 and he’ll be a first-year U14. Ligety, Thomas Vonn, they are great examples of guys who didn’t go full-time until they were older. I figure we can always play catch-up. If my kids dig deep and decide they want to become ski racers, I’m like, I can help with that,” Schlopy says.
Regardless of if or when this happens, fun is still the name of the game.
Love it or leave it
“Here’s a motto I have about skiing,” Schlopy says. “If you become a World Cup ski racer or win a gold medal in the Olympics, your career is still going to be done when you’re in your 20s or 30s. You’ve got another 40 or 50 years left of your life. If you don’t still love the sport of skiing, then you’ve lost.”
As far as a general tip for parents, whether their kids are pursuing an interest in skiing, swimming, computer science or horseback riding, Schlopy borrows one of his favorite nuggets of wisdom from his wife’s book (Champions are Raised, Not Born: How My Parents Made Me a Success).
“Her motto is, match your child’s intensity. If they’re super committed, you’re super committed. If they’re not committed and you’re overly committed, there’s an imbalance. Then it becomes a situation where you’re towing your kids behind you. If they’re yanking you along, there’s a problem there, too,” Schlopy says. “Parents have to choose their own paths. But if other parents were taking care of my kids, I’d say, whatever you do, make sure my kids feel good about themselves.”