VIDEO: Tahoe native, U.S. Ski Team’s Lila Lapanja returning to form | SierraSun.com

VIDEO: Tahoe native, U.S. Ski Team’s Lila Lapanja returning to form

Learning about Lila

U.S. born, but with dual citizenship with Slovenia, Lila Lapanja inherited her love for skiing from dad and former Slovenian National Team skier Vojko Lapanja.

When Lila was 2, her parents took her to the bunny hill on Easter, strapped on some skis and set her off to chase after prize Easter eggs. With her “Ati” as her coach, she learned to ski and race at Diamond Peak in Nevada and rapidly climbed the junior ranks before racing for one year for the Sugar Bowl Ski Team and being called up to the U.S. Ski Team in 2011.

Visit usskiteam.com/athletes/lila-lapanja to learn more about her rise to prominence.

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Check out more in Tahoe Magazine!

This article is adapted from the winter 2016-17 edition of Tahoe Magazine, a joint publication of the Sierra Sun, North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe Action. The magazine, which features loads of features and advertisements about all that the Tahoe winter has to offer, is on newsstands now across Lake Tahoe, Truckee and Reno. Click here to read it online, and be sure to pick up a copy today!

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — 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, soaks 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, this dark November morning in Jackson, 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

See, 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.

“I think the ache was the most overwhelming,” she continued, “when I was sitting at home, petting my cat, and I was watching my fellow athletes compete at the World Cup and other races. All I wanted to do at that point … I didn’t care if I came in last at the race, I didn’t care if I had to ski on 50-year-old skis, I just wanted to be in that environment again.”

With the help of her support system and coaching staff, Lapanja, over a yea- and-a-half span, 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.

Lapanja wasn’t concerned with the numbers she lit on the board or where she was skiing next.

No, the Incline Village native was merely focused on the mountain-sized weight lifted off her shoulders.

“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.”

Not that 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.”

Always hungry to improve, Lila said she leans on her father, whether it’s for moral support, tactical tips or just a positive message, oftentimes via text.

“I just have a whole list of texts he’s sent me after races,” she said. “He’s super positive, and if I have a really tough time gaining perspective on a challenging race or a challenging day of training, he just knows how to bring lightness to it.”

In fact, 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 NEW WORLD OF RACING

After clearing the mental hurdle in Wyoming, Lapanja had to swiftly narrow her focus to her World Cup debut in Aspen, held Nov. 28-29, 2015.

Competing at that level was no doubt where Lapanja wanted to be, but, admittedly, she didn’t think she’d qualify for a World Cup event until the second half of the season, if at all.

And so, as she waited at the starting line, back came the nerves — with a vengeance.

“I couldn’t feel the lower half of my body, I was so nervous,” said Lapanja, who didn’t crack the top 30 — needed to earn points and qualify for a second run — in either of her starts. “It was overwhelming. I definitely wasn’t prepared for that caliber of racing at that time.”

Undeterred, Lapanja went back to sharpening her skills on the NorAm circuit over the next month, finishing as high as 15th in Copper Mountain, Colo., before cruising to consecutive first-place finishes in the slalom in Panorama, Canada.

Moreover, Lapanja said she got “extremely good” coaching from Brandon Dyksterhouse, then-head coach for the U.S. women’s alpine technical team.

“I had work to do mentally and physically to get my skills up to par with that level of skiing, and that’s what this coach was able to provide me,” she said.

‘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.

For comparison, Olympic gold medalists Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn scored their first points in their fourth and 12th starts, respectively.

“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.”

One of her coaches, Karin Harjo, a World Cup women’s tech assistant coach, feels Lapanja has what it takes to work her way up the ranks season after season.

“She’s definitely extremely competitive, which you need to be,” Harjo said. “She just has the will to never give up and always pursue the best. She’s got the speed, she’s got the strength. Now, having a full summer of prep, not only in the gym but also on the snow, I just see her getting better and faster. I’m really excited for her to turn some heads this season.”

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.

“I’m super excited for it, I can’t wait for Squaw,” said Lapanja, who’s no stranger to making the podium at Squaw Valley. In 2014, at the U.S. Alpine Championships, she claimed the junior slalom title and took third overall. “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.”

Moreover, Lapanja is hoping the World Cup races at Squaw Valley bring out a lot of young wide-eyed skiers who have dreams, just as she did once upon a time, of racing for the U.S. Ski Team.

“I think it’s about time this region gets an event like this,” Lapanja said. “It’s time to inspire the next generation that’s 5-10 years below me right now. To be able to be that close to the best in the world in our sport is so cool and something I never got to experience at that age. To be able to give that to them, the aspiring little skiers, and the people who’ve grown up with skiing, I think is going to be one of the biggest accomplishments.”