Back on track: Tahoe native, U.S. Ski Team racer Lila Lapanja returning to form after hiatus from the hill
Special to the Tribune
Lila Lapanja speeds across the red finish line, her black skis kicking up snow as she skids to a stop at the base of Snow King Mountain in Jackson, Wyoming.
It’s Nov. 24, 2015, and Lapanja, a member of the U.S. Ski Team, has just completed her first run in the slalom discipline — a race against the clock requiring skiers to weave between tightly-spaced poles — during an early-season NorAm (North American) Cup competition.
Lapanja’s first run on this dark, cloud-filled morning was strong, but by no means her strongest. Clean, but not her cleanest. Fast, but not her fastest.
Yet, as Lapanja, an Incline Village native, soaked in the atmosphere and cheers from friends and family at the bottom of the hill, a flood of emotions washes over her. Beneath red-tinted ski goggles, Lapanja’s eyes begin filling with tears.
Then, as clouds of fog escape her mouth, a smile spreads across her face.
Truth is, that dark November morning in Wyoming may be a forgettable race day for many NorAm Cup competitors, but for Lapanja, it will be one of her most memorable — and meaningful.
Simply put, the race at Snow King christened Lila Lapanja’s comeback.
TAKING A STEP BACK
A season prior (2014-15), Lapanja, wasn’t sure when — or if — she’d be able to strap on skis and carve down a mountainside for the U.S. Ski Team again.
Plagued by a lower back injury that surfaced in the summer of 2014, Lapanja wrestled with “the impossible decision” of whether to push through the back pain — “get injections; do all the medical procedures” — and risk further injury, or do something she’d never done before: rest.
Making the decision all the more difficult, Lapanja was only a few months removed from winning her first NorAm Slalom title and securing a spot on the World Cup tour for the first time.
What’s more, despite her lingering injury, the U.S. Ski Team had just named Lapanja to the 2015 World Championship Team.
On paper, Lapanja was destined to have her best season yet. But, she knew the back pain would slow her down if she didn’t address the issue.
“I knew right then and there that I had to make my decision,” Lapanja said. “And I told my governing body that I’m going to stop now; I’m going to take time off. I’m going to figure out what’s going on, and I’m going to come back stronger.”
With that, the then-20-year-old Lapanja, for the first time in her young life, hung up the skis and got down to resting.
It didn’t take long for Lapanja to struggle with the stark change of pace. After all, the Tahoe native who first got up on skis as a 2-year-old, had been racing competitively since she was on the Diamond Peak team at age 7.
“Since it was what I felt like I was destined to do, I felt like who I was was totally gone and empty,” Lapanja said. “I definitely had an identity crisis because I associate myself with sports and being an athlete and suddenly I couldn’t be an athlete because I had to rest, and I knew I had to rest.”
With the help of her support system and coaching staff, Lapanja, over a year and a half, slowly worked her way back there.
A TURNING POINT
Heading into her NorAm race at Snow King, Lapanja was riddled with nerves.
“I didn’t want to think too much because there were so many doubts floating in my headspace,” she said.
However, Lapanja had three encouraging elements on her side — she was fresh off a month of pain-free training; she was familiar with the hill; and her parents were in attendance cheering her on.
“I had just enough to ride on where I was able to overcome the nerves and make it down that first run,” Lapanja said.
And after she crossed the finish line, the significance of that feat — overcoming both her injury and nerves — wasn’t lost on her.
“A deep feeling of completion overwhelmed me when I finished my race,” Lapanja said. “I went through everything I had done to prepare myself for the chance to compete again.
“Emotions took over and I cried tears of joy, relief, compassion [for injured athletes] and gratitude. Crying in that moment was a positive and healthy way for me to release the worry and anxiety I had carried around for 18 months.”
Never mind the fact Lapanja finished sixth on her first day back and, the following day, nabbed third. Never mind the fact she pocketed 31.78 International Ski Federation (FIS) points and, in the process, qualified for a World Cup race in Aspen held three days later.
“I felt like myself again on that second day,” Lapanja said. “I didn’t do anything differently, but I was already skiing faster because my spirit was lighter. That proved to me that when I keep my mind and energy light, I ski faster.”
LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
For Lapanja’s father, Slovenian-born Vojko Lapanja — formerly of the Slovenia National Ski Team and past U.S. National Champion for Incline Village’s Sierra Nevada College — seeing Lila battle adversity and settle back onto the slopes was “incredibly special.”
“We didn’t know what to expect going into it, so it was fun to watch her progress really from run to run,” said Vojko Lapanja, who coached Lila on the Diamond Peak Ski Team for six years and continues to serve as her “connection” coach. “Her confidence was increasing, her speed was increasing, and the results were improving. We were only there for two days, but the difference between her four runs — from her first to her fourth — was pretty incredible. It was awesome.”
But Vojko was surprised Lila quickly regained her footing despite her extensive hiatus from the hill.
“She’s a super strong athlete, and her mind is incredible how she approaches preparation and race days,” he said. “There’s so many variables that fall into place to be a championship ski racer, and she’s got all of that. We just got to continue to find it and continue to feed it.”
Lila said the best piece of advice her father has given her is the Slovene phrase “Lahkih nog naokrog.”
“It basically translates to being really light on your feet, being light in spirit,” Lila said. “Basically embodying this sense of being light and athletic and explosive.”
‘A MAGICAL NIGHT’
Returning to form, Lapanja was thrust back into the World Cup circuit on Jan. 12, 2016. This time, at one of the biggest slalom race stages in the world: Flachau, Austria.
To say Lapanja rose to the occasion would be an understatement.
Amid a crowd of roughly 15,000 people, as heavy snowflakes shimmer in the floodlights, Lapanja put on a show, slicing down the course at peak speed and precision, punctuating her runs with a beaming smile.
“Lila was more confident, more determined, than I’ve ever seen her before,” said Vojko Lapanja. “And having fun. Really, the smile on her face in the finish was priceless. She put her whole heart into it.”
At night’s end, Lapanja, who entered the race as the No. 37 seed, finished in 23rd place, good enough to score her first World Cup points (30.60) in only her third World Cup start.
“It was just a magical night,” Lapanja said. “It was such a cool feeling to come down to the World Cup and really feel like I belonged there. This is what I love to do; I love the atmosphere, I love the energy, I love being on that international stage and performing.
“I wasn’t worried about having a mistaken-ridden run; all I wanted to do was go for it. I was a child in Aspen. In Flachau, I had grown up.”
THE NEXT STEP
Riding the momentum of last season’s leap, Lapanja, continually seeking the next obstacle, has her sights set on raising the bar once again this 2016-17 season and beyond.
“My biggest goals are to be competitive on the World Cup circuit,” she said. “Start to really rank myself in the top 15, top 10, top 5 and eventually top 3 and start getting World Cup podiums and winning World Cup races.”
Lapanja is especially eager to do that at a certain location this season, a place that hasn’t hosted World Cup skiing since 1969, her own backyard — Squaw Valley.
The Audi FIS World Cup races at Squaw Valley will consist of a women’s giant slalom on Friday, March 10, 2017 and a women’s slalom on Saturday, March 11, 2017. Lapanja isn’t a stranger to making the podium at Squaw — at the U.S. Alpine Championships in 2014, Lapanja claimed the junior slalom title and took third overall.
“I’m super excited for it, I can’t wait for Squaw,” Lapanja said. “I’m going to come to Squaw and, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I have big goals and I want people in this region to come support me and our other American athletes and just see how cool World Cup racing can be.”
This article is adapted from the winter edition of Tahoe Magazine, which is available at area newsstands now. Be sure to pick up a copy!