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.