‘Proud moment’: Incline’s Lapanja ends season on high note, eyes 2022 Olympics
Incline Village’s Lila Lapanja stands in the dark Finish Lapland, eyeing the traces of fog that dance among the lights and slalom gates below her.
It’s November at Finland’s largest ski resort, Levi, and Lapanja, 26, is seeking her first World Cup points since 2016.
During these past few years, she’s dealt with various nagging injuries, losing her place on the national team, and fighting to continue her career as an independent racer. Now on a dark night in Finland, Lapanja has a chance to prove to herself and everyone else that she still belongs among the world’s top alpine skiers.
She came into the event having faltered on the first run of the prior day’s slalom competition, taking a disqualification in her first race of the World Cup season. But on this cold night in Finland, Lapanja would summon two solid runs down the slalom course at Levi to claim her first World Cup points in four years.
“It’s cool to show myself I can come back and do it and be competitive,” said Lapanja, who finished the event in 25th place, in an interview with the Sierra Sun.
“I feel like I came full circle with Levi in so many ways,” added Lapanja in an interview after the race with U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “The result tonight is extra special for me. This step back into the top 30 was a huge win for my team and their belief in what I am doing. This one was for them as much as for me.”
The 2020-21 ski season marked the third year Lapanja has been without the benefits of being on the U.S. Alpine Ski Team.
During that time, she’s had to manage all aspects of her career that are usually taken care of, at least in part by the national program, from costs associated with racing to managing her training schedule.
“It forced me to become the CEO of my ski career,” said Lapanja. “I was in charge of everything. I didn’t have someone telling me what to do or where to be on a specific day or how to ski. I had to create that environment myself, and surround myself with people who could support that, because I absolutely could not do that on my own.”
While Lapanja said she’s been able to find donations and sponsorships to help offset the costs of travel and other expenses tied to racing at the top level, one of the biggest challenges has been getting time on the snow — something her counterparts on the U.S. team don’t have to contend with.
“When you’re on the ski team, they organize that all for you,” she said of on-snow training time. “That’s the biggest unknown for me that I have to constantly navigate and stay on top of. Being on the national team, you’re not aware of that until you don’t have it anymore.”
As far as getting back into the national program, U.S. Ski & Snowboard makes annual nominations based on a number of criteria that includes not only performance on the snow but the age of the athlete.
“The age thing has been something that through the years has been hard, because it really dominates our criteria process,” said Lapanja, who was first named to the U.S. Alpine Ski Team at 16. “It can almost feel unfair sometimes because they really look at performance and age together.”
Lapanja said one of her goals is to make it back onto the team, but more immediately, to qualify for the 2022 Olympic games.
A winter in Europe
While the logistics of holding a season during a pandemic have dominated much of the talk around events, for the athletes the outbreak of COVID-19 has brought about a whole other set of challenges.
Lapanja landed in Europe last October to begin training ahead of the season’s first World Cup races. After finding early success at Levi, she’d struggle to find consistency on the World Cup stage at races in Sweden, Austria, and other locations, often putting down solid times but just off the mark needed to reach the finals. Between those events Lapanja would post encouraging results in smaller FIS races, claiming a second-place finish in Germany and a ninth in Austria.
While competition provided a distraction from COVID-19, the weeks away from home began dragging on for Lapanja. The independent racer — competing in a sport that’s in its nature individual — said the isolation brought on by the pandemic became another challenge to overcome.
“We stayed in really tight bubbles, and sometimes there was a lot of alone time,” said Lapanja. “COVID definitely made it feel very different in terms of living abroad and training abroad.”
Instead of the usual adventures to restaurants and museums at various locations across Europe, Lapanja said she passed the time between races by training, weekly COVID testing, and listening to music while taking in the local scenery as part of regular, long walks at wherever she found herself staying.
“That was the best way when we were in new and different places to just experience where we were, because there wasn’t anything you could really go do socially or things you could visit,” she said. “You kind of just wander around and take in the culture and sites without really doing anything.”
During the middle part of the season plans were to return home to spend time with family and friends, but due to COVID-19 and rules around having to quarantine, Lapanja opted to stay in Europe through winter, marking the longest time she’d ever been away from home.
“It was a lot to handle, but for the most part I thought I did really well with it, and I learned a lot to take into my next season,” she said. “All of the inconveniences were worth it because at least we got to race. At the end of the day that’s really all that matters.”
Triumphant return home
After roughly six months away from home, Lapanja returned to the Tahoe area in early March to compete at an FIS event at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.
She’d go on to take a pair of super-G wins, and a second place in slalom, building momentum heading into the final competition of the season — the U.S. Alpine National Championships.
Going into the weeklong national championships in Aspen, Colorado, Lapanja, who has competed at the annual competition since she was 16 years old, had never been able to claim a title.
On April 13, super-G kicked off the U.S. Alpine National Championships, and Lapanja, who specializes in slalom, put together a solid run to finish in fifth place. The result left her in solid shape for the combined title, which would be decided the following day with a round of slalom racing. Slalom and super-G times are added together to decide the combined winner.
Usually a one-day competition, the combined title was also split into a pair of days due to warm weather. Amid quickly disappearing snow and spring conditions at Aspen Highlands, Lapanja was able to put down the second fastest slalom time of the day to claim her first career national title, winning by 0.01 seconds.
“It was a really proud moment,” said Lapanja. “I thought for sure my first U.S. National Championship win was going to come in my most dominant event (slalom), but fate had other plans.”
Lapanja wasn’t satisfied with winning her first national title, and the following day made it two in a row, claiming the win in giant slalom by 0.04 seconds. She sat outside of the top-10 after her first run, but finished her second run with the fastest time of the day to leapfrog the field for the championship.
“When I was inspecting the second run, I just thought, ‘OK, just ski smart, focus on some really simple technical things, and don’t panic … don’t try to fight the length of the course, don’t try to fight the conditions, because it’s going to win today if you do,” said Lapanja in an interview with U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “It was just that long and that tough of a course.”
Lapanja would finish out her 2020-21 season the following day at Aspen Highlands, claiming eighth place in slalom. She credited her success in the final months of the season to her approach to training this year, and mixing things up by competing in events other than slalom.
“A big piece has been changing up the routine from the intensity of training and racing slalom all the time, to switching to some other events with GS and super-G,” said Lapanja. “Put simply, it’s fun. It kind of entertained my mind in another way.”
2021-22 and Olympic aspirations
Nominations for the 2021-22 U.S. Alpine Ski Team typically come out in May, and while Lapanja’s performance at the national championships won’t count toward the criteria for making the team, she’s hopeful of being given a discretionary spot.
“Fingers crossed that that will happen,” she said.
Regardless, Lapanja’s sights are set on the upcoming season, and ultimately landing a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
At age 26, she said she feels like she’s still reaching her athletic prime, and combined with the experiences from the past few seasons, is poised to make a run in the coming season, which is slated to start in November.
“There’s a lot of work to be done between now and then,” said Lapanja. “I’ve been working a long time toward it, and I’m in a place where I can really have the opportunity to showcase my skiing on that level.”
With the uncertainty regarding being on the national team and the financial support it brings, Lapanja said she is seeking sponsorships and donations for the 2021-22 season. For more information on supporting Lapanja, visit http://www.lilalapanja.com.
“I just want to bring as many people with me on my journey as possible. It’s not just for me anymore. When you’re younger it’s kind of all about you, but I feel like I’m giving it to a much bigger community of people who have supported me. I want to share that good feeling with as many people as possible,” said Lapanja.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication to the Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com or 530-550-2643.
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