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Alex Schlopy’s fight for so­bri­ety

Alex Schlopy stood on a cliff. The edge was not an un­fa­mil­iar place for the pro­fes­sional skier. But this was dif­fer­ent. He didn’t have skis on. Schlopy, then 24, was above a pop­u­lar surf spot in Encini­tas, Cal­i­for­nia, where he was vis­it­ing with his fam­ily for his sis­ter’s grad­u­a­tion from cos­me­tol­ogy school. It was well past mid­night, and he was drunk and on his pre­scribed Xanax med­i­ca­tion. Eighty feet be­low him, he heard waves crash, but couldn’t see the hard, sandy beach. He called a friend and told him he was go­ing to jump to see if he should be alive. They were both sob­bing.

It had been a rough year for the slopestyle skier. He’d nar­rowly missed the Olympics, he’d bro­ken up with his girl­friend, and he’d lost all of his spon­sors af­ter burn­ing out from com­pe­ti­tions. He suf­fered from de­pres­sion and panic at­tacks, and he no longer wanted to live. He looked over the edge one more time. Then he jumped.

This isn’t the Schlopy most skiers know. The Park City na­tive, now 26, be­came a pro skier at 14. In 2011, at the age of 18, he won gold in X Games Big Air, gold in slopestyle at the FIS World Cham­pi­onships, and gold in slopestyle at Dew Tour. He filmed seg­ments with TGR and MSP. Schlopy was al­ways the cen­ter of at­ten­tion—“the show­man,” as one coach called him—and par­ty­ing hard. He was young and suc­cess­ful, but also of­ten anx­ious and not him­self. Then things took a dra­matic turn. In 2014, a month be­fore the Sochi Olympics, he found out he didn’t make the team. The news led to an abrupt, tragic end to a suc­cess­ful ca­reer and a cy­cle of ad­dic­tion that nearly re­sulted in his death many times over.

By the time Schlopy was in Cal­i­for­nia in 2016, he was mis­er­able. When he stepped off the cliff, he tum­bled down the rocks and hit the sand hard enough to knock him un­con­scious. While he lay on the beach, alone, bro­ken, and near death, he had a vi­sion. He was at a ta­ble. Shane Mccon­key, Sarah Burke, and friends who died young were there. They told him that his time hadn’t yet come. He screamed at them, “Why can’t I be with you guys?” They told him he still had work to do, he re­mem­bers. Then he came to. He crawled for a half mile un­til he reached Moon­light Beach where he called 911 and told the op­er­a­tor he had fallen. Schlopy had bleed­ing in his brain and punc­tured, bleed­ing lungs. Medics checked him into the ICU, where he was ex­pected to spend a month re­cov­er­ing. Doc­tors cleared him af­ter four days. “It was a mir­a­cle,” says Schlopy. For many, the ex­pe­ri­ence would have been a sober­ing wake-up call, but for Schlopy, the pain was only be­gin­ning.

Schlopy was born in 1992 to Holly Flan­ders, a two-time Olympian and the one of the top-ranked Amer­i­can down­hillers in the early ’80s, and Todd Schlopy, an NFL kicker turned Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer. Alex was on skis at age 1. When he was 8, af­ter his younger brother was born, his par­ents di­vorced. As Alex re­mem­bers it, his dad went on a busi­ness trip and didn’t come back. Schlopy was dev­as­tated. His mom re­mem­bers him tak­ing a knife and threat­en­ing to kill him­self. He wouldn’t see his dad again for sev­eral years.

Schlopy was an ac­tive boy who had a hard time fo­cus­ing in school. The year of the di­vorce, Flan­ders asked the Park City gym­nas­tics coach to give Schlopy a try­out, even though he was younger than the rest of the team.

“On Alex’s first day, while he was wait­ing in line be­hind the other boys, he started do­ing stand­ing back­flips higher than he was tall,” says Mike Han­ley, the gym­nas­tics coach at the time. “This later pro­gressed into stand­ing in­verted cork 720s. It was at that point I re­al­ized he could have a fu­ture in any ath­letic pur­suit that he set his mind to.”

Two years later, Han­ley and sev­eral of his ath­letes, in­clud­ing the fu­ture three­time X Games medal­ist and Olympian Mcrae Wil­liams, quit gym­nas­tics—a dis­ci­pline in which their en­tire team fin­ished in the top 10 na­tion­ally—to pur­sue slopestyle ski­ing. Schlopy’s ca­reer took off on a trip to the Ver­mont Open when he was 13. A mid­dle-class, sin­gle par­ent of three, his mother couldn’t af­ford to ac­com­pany her son. Schlopy used a fam­ily friend’s air­line miles to get there, then slept on a stranger’s floor through­out the event. Joss Chris­tensen, his child­hood friend and the fu­ture Olympic gold medal­ist, who at this point was also coached by Han­ley, was there, too. Schlopy won the ju­nior di­vi­sion. The next year, he won the men’s di­vi­sion. He con­tin­ued to win events and spon­sors. Sud­denly, he was a teenager mak­ing around $25,000 a year. He was fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent and trav­eled for most of the year with lit­tle over­sight.

Men­tally, though, he didn’t have great foot­ing. When he was 15, he nearly died in a car ac­ci­dent. He was rid­ing in the front seat when his friend started spin­ning donuts in a snowy park­ing lot. The car hit a rock and rolled, crush­ing the roof of the ve­hi­cle to the seats. Schlopy, who suf­fered a trau­matic brain

in­jury, doesn’t re­mem­ber get­ting home. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ver­tigo and a reg­u­lar sen­si­tiv­ity to light, he missed a year of school and ski com­pe­ti­tions and was un­able to do much more than sit in a dark base­ment.

But the fol­low­ing win­ter, he worked his way back onto the com­pe­ti­tion scene. Around the same time, he be­came the FIS slopestyle world cham­pion. At 20, he was mak­ing over $200,000 a year. He bought an Audi S5 and a condo in Park City. On top of his early film cred­its, he felt like he had ac­com­plished all of his goals.

Schlopy ad­mits he started skat­ing by af­ter that. He was run-down from years of com­pet­ing. When the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee an­nounced they were in­clud­ing half­pipe and slopestyle in the Games, though, it gave him a re­newed fo­cus. He wrote down his goal: “Make the Olympics or kill my­self.” He spent six hours a day in the gym. Then, a month be­fore the event in Sochi, as he was on his way to com­pete at X Games, he got the call. It was from U.S. Freeski­ing Coach Sko­gen Sprang, who told him he’d missed the team by half a point.

The news un­moored him, send­ing him into a spi­ral. The next sea­son, Schlopy de­cided he didn’t want to com­pete in Dew Tour.

“At that point, I just felt burnt out and down in the dumps. I felt like I wasn’t good any­more,” he says. “I just wanted to take some time for my­self.”

His de­ci­sion meant he wouldn’t qual­ify for other events that sea­son. De­spite hav­ing ver­bal com­mit­ments from spon­sors, they all fired him. Sud­denly, he was with­out any in­come or di­rec­tion.

“That’s when I re­ally gave up on my­self,” he says. “Ski­ing was pretty much my soul, and it felt like I lost my soul. So I was re­ally strug­gling to find pur­pose.”

His de­pres­sion got worse. He found out his girl­friend was cheat­ing on him with many of his friends. He lost them all.

“I still had a lit­tle money, so I just spent it on par­ty­ing and try­ing to make my­self feel that same rush of be­ing a pro skier, try­ing to stay rel­e­vant in my mind, in a to­tally syn­thetic way,” he says. “I to­tally got lost in this sur­real world of drugs and al­co­hol.”

In a sub­cul­ture that ro­man­ti­cizes its par­ties, skiers toe a line. Drink beers ev­ery day, maybe pop a few pills here and there, and you’re in good com­pany. But when does sub­stance use be­come a prob­lem? It would be sim­ple to pin­point Schlopy’s demise with the Olympics an­nounce­ment, which cer­tainly con­trib­uted to his anx­i­ety, but it wasn’t the cause of his drug ad­dic­tion. Schlopy says he is an emo­tion­ally sen­si­tive man who was con­di­tioned to think reg­u­lar co­caine and al­co­hol use was nor­mal, es­pe­cially in Park City, where drugs were al­ways around. Then there’s the role of sta­tis­ti­cal prob­a­bil­ity. Ac­cord­ing to the Cana­dian Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion Jour­nal, the risk of sui­cide in­creases three­fold for adults who have had a con­cus­sion. Schlopy es­ti­mates he’s had five con­cus­sions in ad­di­tion to his TBI.

Schlopy also came of age in the mid­dle of an opi­oid cri­sis in Amer­ica, where drug over­doses are the lead­ing cause of death for peo­ple un­der 50. Over 95 mil­lion peo­ple use pre­scrip­tion painkillers, and an es­ti­mated two mil­lion Amer­i­cans abuse opi­oids. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, drug over­dose rates among those age 15 to 24 in­creased 28 per­cent from 2015-2016. Ev­ery day, an­other 100 peo­ple die. More than 30 per­cent of opi­oid over­doses in­volve ben­zo­di­azepines like Xanax.

At first, Schlopy didn’t even like painkillers, which he took for var­i­ous in­juries. They made him dizzy and sick, but then his de­pen­dency, like it has for thou­sands of oth­ers, grew out of con­trol.

“I started to kind of like it be­cause they gave me this false boost of... ev­ery­thing,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was get­ting my­self into. I was bury­ing that de­pres­sion, so it made it so I was OK with my­self be­ing alive. I didn’t want to take my life any­more, but I also didn’t want to be alive, so I was stuck in this limbo state, where I wanted to feel good and be the nor­mal per­son I was, but the only way I could achieve that feel­ing was through drugs.”

In 2016, Schlopy started wear­ing a fen­tanyl patch that gave him hits through­out the day. He started us­ing heroin—much cheaper than pills—and then, as he sold off the rest of his as­sets, he turned to crack co­caine ev­ery day. He tried meth, and spent ev­ery day on “the Block” in Salt Lake City, an area near the home­less shel­ter where many peo­ple look­ing for a fix con­gre­gate. He was robbed. He was sold bad drugs. He watched a woman die from an over­dose. Still, he looked through dump­sters for some­thing to sell to buy more. He tried a with­drawal clinic but the pain was too se­vere, so he left and con­tin­ued to use.

Schlopy told me this while we sat in the kitchen of his mom’s house in Park City, where he now lives. We sat on stools while Flan­ders, his mom, made us smooth­ies and did the dishes. It was the first time she was hear­ing many of these de­tails.

“You could see that some­thing was up. He’d come in and have this dark pal­lor to his face,” says Flan­ders. “It was so weird, and some­times it seemed like it wasn’t even you in there.”

Flan­ders thought it was the head in­juries that were af­fect­ing her son, but she couldn’t know for sure. Like most ad­dicts, Schlopy lied about his prob­lems in an ef­fort to hide them. He es­ti­mates he was spend­ing $150 to $300 a day

on drugs. Even­tu­ally, his money ran out. He had a girl­friend at the time, who used with him, and when she stole credit cards, they both got ar­rested. He spent two days in jail, with­draw­ing from Xanax and var­i­ous drugs. Schlopy was charged with two counts of un­law­ful ac­qui­si­tion and pos­ses­sion or trans­fer of a fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tion card—each third-de­gree felonies.

“I’m glad we got ar­rested,” says Schlopy, “be­cause it just would have got­ten worse. That’s how drugs work.”

As soon as he got out of jail—his dad fronted bail—he started us­ing again. One day, he drove up to Guards­man’s Pass, be­yond Park City, with a gun. He was go­ing to end his life. It was a year af­ter his at­tempt in Cal­i­for­nia. He was cry­ing when his phone rang. It was his dad, call­ing with bad news. The mother of Schlopy’s close friend, Josh Fin­bow, had died by sui­cide. Schlopy hung up the phone and drove home.

Around the same time, Flan­ders called Todd and told him he had to get their son to re­hab. Schlopy used his last re­main­ing as­set—air­line miles—to pay for the ticket to a fa­cil­ity in Texas. He wasn’t quite done, though. The night be­fore his trip, he stayed up all night us­ing all the drugs he could get his hands on. He made his flight, drugs in tow, and did more in the park­ing garage be­fore his shut­tle to re­hab picked him up.

At the fa­cil­ity, some pa­tients snuck in drugs. Schlopy even found some stashed away in his pack, but he threw them out. He was done. He had acute with­drawals—shak­ing, sweat­ing, vom­it­ing—for 17 days. He barely had the strength to walk for a month. Af­ter 30 days in treat­ment, he checked out of re­hab. He still gets tired eas­ily and ex­pe­ri­ences se­vere headaches, but as of press time he’s been clean for nearly 500 days.

On De­cem­ber 8, 2017, Schlopy wrote a post on Newschool­ers called “The truth be­hind my com­plete de­struc­tion,” in which he pub­licly shared his story for the first time.

“I hope I can help peo­ple avoid this path,” Schlopy says now, “and learn to love them­selves for who they are. Ev­ery­body has prob­lems, makes mis­takes, but ev­ery­one is a beau­ti­ful per­son in their soul, in their heart. You should be al­lowed to be who you are. There’s a lot of stigma be­hind ad­dic­tion, and I’m ba­si­cally told to think that I’m a bad per­son and weak, but I can prom­ise you that I’m one of the strong­est peo­ple, and I’m not a bad per­son. I never have been. I just made some mis­takes.”

He and Fin­bow are work­ing on sev­eral projects to­gether they hope will in­spire oth­ers. The two met when they were teenagers and came up in the ski in­dus­try to­gether. Fin­bow, who had his own sub­stance abuse is­sues, is now sober and liv­ing with Flan­ders, too. Their ex­pe­ri­ences have in­spired them to start an ap­parel com­pany, called Re­match, which is com­mit­ted to des­tig­ma­tiz­ing men­tal health. The two are also work­ing on a fea­ture film about their lives as ad­dicts that they hope to pre­miere at Sun­dance in 2020.

The fu­ture for Schlopy, though, is one day at a time. His life now is quiet and mod­est. He deleted his In­sta­gram ac­count with 30,000 fol­low­ers—“i just don’t think it’s healthy,” he says. Last win­ter, he worked at a ski shop as a boot­fit­ter and ski tech. This sum­mer, he did land­scap­ing five days a week. He re­cently picked up a job as a taxi driver. He finds peace in the work and in learn­ing to live with his emo­tions. He’s also com­plet­ing the sen­tence for his felonies—an 18-month Drug Court re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram—which in­cludes reg­u­lar com­mu­nity ser­vice, four classes a week, and three to seven drug tests a week, in or­der to have the charges ex­punged from his record.

Schlopy says ev­ery day he’s get­ting bet­ter, and that he’s more mind­ful and learn­ing to work on pos­i­tive af­fir­ma­tions.

“I’ve gone back and dealt with [the emo­tional pain] in a sober mind, which is some­thing I hadn’t learned to do in life—come to peace with ev­ery­thing,” he says. “Who I was yes­ter­day isn’t who I am to­day. And I think that’s im­por­tant for ev­ery­one to re­mem­ber. Peo­ple can change. I made a sig­nif­i­cant change in my life, and it’s awe­some. I get that joy out of life, and do­ing things that I love, be­ing around peo­ple that I love. The high is so much more re­ward­ing than any drug you could ever do.”

In early June, Schlopy was stand­ing on a cliff, star­ing down­ward. It was a beau­ti­ful sum­mer af­ter­noon. With­out a word, he leapt. He im­me­di­ately started spin­ning and flip­ping. He threw a dub 9, then a dub 12, and a dou­ble back­flip. It was the first time in over a year that he had thrown these tricks. Ev­ery turn was a per­fect, world-class flip into Utah’s Causey Reser­voir, 40 feet be­low. It was mus­cle mem­ory for Schlopy. When he hiked back up the rocks, he had a big smile on his face as the on­look­ers slapped him on the back or gave him a high five.

This fall, Schlopy an­nounced that he was aim­ing for the 2022 Olympics. Af­ter all, he’s only 26, and he feels too good not to try.

“I’ve al­ready been through hell,” he says. “What do I have to lose?”

If you or a loved one is in need of help, the Na­tional Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Life­line is avail­able 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

“Peo­ple can change. I made a sig­nif­i­cant change in my life, and it’s awe­some. I get that joy out of life, and do­ing things that I love, be­ing around peo­ple that I love. The high is so much more re­ward­ing than any drug you could ever do.”

As a teenager, Alex Schlopy was a world-class skier mak­ing $25,000 per year, trav­el­ing and liv­ing on his own. Now in re­cov­ery from drug abuse, he is back home in Park City, liv­ing with his mom.

Schlopy and his mom, Holly Flan­ders, spend time to­gether camp­ing in Win­nie, their ’99 Rialta.

Even as one of the best skiers in the world, Schlopy is try­ing to sim­ply be him­self.

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