By Mark Lamport-Stokes
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado (Reuters) - Dual citizen Sarah Schleper felt twice blessed at the alpine ski world championships on Thursday as she competed in the women's giant slalom in front of her hometown crowds under the flag of Mexico.
Born in nearby Glenwood Springs and a product of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, Schleper represented the United States at four Winter Olympics and five world championships before retiring from the sport in December 2011.
Fast forward a little more than three years and Schleper is back in action. Having married a Mexican in 2007, she made the decision last June to return to competition under the banner of her husband's country.
"I am just so proud to represent Mexico," Schleper, who became a Mexican citizen last April, said after finishing a creditable 50th in the giant slalom with a combined time of two minutes, 31.73 seconds at Beaver Creek.
"I love the country, I love the people. I never dreamed I would be anything but an American, so this in itself is a dream."
Asked what had prompted her to come out of retirement last year, the 35-year-old skier replied: "As my husband is Mexican, it was a way for me to continue in a very fun way.
"It's great to be ski racing still at my age and be able to continue to have dreams and aspirations. And I know pretty much everyone in the stands here. I grew up in this town and they have seen me grow up from a little baby," added Schleper, who splits her time between Vail and Mexican resort of Los Cabos.
Schleper was greeted by thunderous roars from the packed grandstand as she crossed the finish line after clocking a time of 1:14.39 on the plunging Raptor racecourse in the afternoon run.
"I'm glad I held on until the finish and gave my fans something to cheer for," she said.
Schleper, who will celebrate her 36th birthday next week, claimed just one World Cup win during her career, in the slalom at Lenzerheide in Switzerland in 2005.
Though it has been more than three years since she last qualified for the giant slalom on the World Cup circuit, in many ways she feels as if she has never been away.
"I get a lot of the same feelings," said Schleper, who has been coaching two young Mexican ski racers at nearby Vail. "I still feel like I have a chance and I still get nervous and want to get the speed going. A lot of the emotions are very similar."
(Editing by Steve Keating.)