‘I’ve been brought here to ski race’: Lila Lapanja’s passion for Alpine racing burns brighter than ever
In a split second everything can change for an athlete pursuing a career in alpine racing.
During those fleeting moments of speeding down an icy slope a skier could see their world ranking skyrocket with a good performance, or by making one small mistake, a bad crash could derail an entire season, setting back a career for years.
It’s something Incline Village’s Lila Lapanja has come to embrace during her time competing in International Ski Federation events. The 25 year old has gone through a lot since first earning a place on the U.S. Ski Team as a 16 year old — from battling through injuries and losing her place on the team to racing independently the past two seasons.
Without the financial support and training provided by the U.S. Ski Team, athletes must offset the costs of travel, coaching, and training out of pocket or through sponsors. It’s something Lapanja has had to deal with since the 2017-18 season.
“Having to provide for myself essentially without the support of the national team, there’s just a lot of factors that go into that,” she said.
“The most challenging thing is just finding training opportunities, just having everything in place so you don’t have to think about buying a ticket, buying a pass, calling people to get training opportunities, paying for training venues, or calling other teams to see what’s available. All of that stuff is always taken care of when you’re a national team member, so you can just focus on showing up to training and skiing as fast as you possibly can.”
U.S. Ski Team athletes are nominated to the team based on a number of criteria, including age and how well they’ve performed at various International Ski Federation events. Going into her third season of racing independently, regaining her place on the team is a major goal this year for Lapanja.
“I was on the team for six years and it feels like a really natural place to be,” she said. “But I’ve also learned a lot as an independent that I’ll take back into that environment with me.”
Due to nagging injuries, it’s been a tough past few years of independent racing for Lapanja. This is the first year since 2016 that she said she feels healthy, crediting a change in her workout routine.
“You have to be creative with your training and you can’t just be monotonous and keep doing the same thing over and over, because you never experience those situations when you’re on snow. It’s always changing,” said Lapanja.
“All of the injuries, while they are upsetting and sometimes demoralizing, they always teach me something that makes me stronger in the end. In a sense, they’ve been a blessing, because by addressing them … I’ve been able to put together a super strong training program that just has me feeling really physically good this year.”
Love and fear: a racer’s mindset
Standing above a race course, much can go through an athlete’s mind, from visualizing skiing past the gates below to balancing the risk and reward that often decides who winds up on the podium.
Since bursting onto the stage as a teenager, Lapanja said her approach to the mental side of racing has changed dramatically.
“My mindset through the years, especially from when I first made the team as a 16 year old to now, what I focus on has shifted, what’s important to me has shifted, and how I approach things has shifted. It’s always changing and evolving. What had worked for me three or four years ago, just doesn’t work anymore when I’m at the start. I’ve had to keep recalibrating my mindset,” said Lapanja.
“I think that just comes with maturity and growth and how you see your life and your career. Right now my approach is very process oriented. I’m very focused on a specific technique or movement that I want to achieve. I try not to get too far ahead of myself, and I try to keep things really, really simple. If I start to think about more than two or three things at a time, I know that’s when I need to just go take a free run or go free ski or kind of free my mind, because you can’t be too conscious when you’re skiing. It doesn’t work. You have to be able to let go once you are on that course.”
It’s being able to let go on the course that has been a major change in Lapanja’s racing. No longer does she focus on external forces like competing against other athletes or the possibility of crashing during a race. Instead, she turns her attention inward, racing against herself and the mountain.
“You’re putting everything on the line and crashing is a real possibility — and sometimes a necessity — and you’re trying to go fast,” she said. “Something is going to happen at some point, and so you have to make peace with ultimately, never really having control. It’s something that used to scare me, it doesn’t scare me anymore.”
The pressure of competition, performing well, and the fear of injury from a bad crash were once things that weighed heavily on Lapanja as a young skier. Now, she says those feelings are fuel for race day, turning what were once negative emotions into faster times at the bottom of the hill.
“It’s really easy to want to avoid those feelings that you feel at the start, because there is a lot on the line. You do feel a lot of pressure,” said Lapanja. “You feel pressure from an outcome standpoint, you feel pressure from people watching, you feel pressure from the other athletes, you feel pressure from the course and the hill and the speed, and it’s really easy to want to avoid that and push it away, but, ultimately, the thing that’s going to make you the strongest is to embrace it, to invite it in and make peace with it, and become friends with it and find a way to work with it to fuel you in that moment. It can be a really powerful emotion if you use it right.”
Heading into the 2019-20 season, Lapanja said she has also rediscovered her love for alpine racing. During the past few years, she’s gone through many highs and lows due to injuries and results on race day, which at the time gave her pause when deciding to continue her race career.
“There have been many moments where I’ve wanted to stop or where I thought maybe I should stop because things just weren’t looking like they were progressing,” she said. “From the outside looking in, it would make sense to stop, but when you’ve done something this long and you really feel a connection to it and you feel a purpose behind it, there’s always that part of me that knew I was going to keep going. There’s this deep enduring love. It’s this deep constant passion that keeps burning … it doesn’t get fazed anymore, especially going into this season, I’ve just really kept that love alive at a consistent level. It’s really proven to me that I’m doing exactly what I was meant to be doing, what I want to be doing. I feel like I have a voice to express in this sport and I want to keep seeing how far I can go with it, and keep sharing those experiences with the world.”
Returning to the podium
Lapanja opened the 2019-20 season on the North-American Cup circuit by capturing a pair of first-place finishes in slalom at Copper Mountain Resort, in Colorado.
The results served as vindication for all of the changes she’s made during the offseason.
“I’ve put a lot of work into just focusing on the process of working my technique, working on my race tactics, working on strengthening my body with the physical training, and mentally preparing for another season,” said Lapanja. “I wasn’t even really thinking about the racing component of it, even when I was at the race, and to achieve that felt just really validating for what I’m doing off-snow and in the gym — the hours that I’m putting into my career and the sport that I love. It’s a really exciting way to start the season. It couldn’t have gone any better.”
Moving forward, Lapanja said her goal is to capture the North-American Cup overall title, win a national championship, and ultimately, regain her place on the U.S. Ski Team.
A goal she’s had since she first began racing also remains in the back of her mind — becoming an Olympic athlete.
“I remember getting triggered by that desire to be an Olympian, to be an Olympic athlete,” she said. “That was what stoked my fire at the beginning. It’s the one thing that is fueling my fire and one of the reasons why, even in moments of doubt or hesitation, that I keep going. The idea of being an Olympian and being at that pinnacle really inspires me and is just a big reason why I love to race.”
Ultimately, Lapanja was put here to ski. The slopes and competition are her calling, providing life lessons that she’ll take away long after she decides to hang up her skis.
“I feel like everyone has something in life that they are brought here to overcome or to master some sort of fear that they have,” said Lapanja. “For a sport like this that’s so action dominant and that triggers some scary things, I feel like it’s a part of the reason why I’m here. I’ve been brought here to ski race to teach me to overcome something that’s been hard for me — overcoming that pressure that you feel and that fear. That’s a big reason why I’m still doing it. I’m still learning about myself through this sport and it’s teaching me so much about my mental, physical and emotional composition. It’s the best classroom in the world for that.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at email@example.com or 530-550-2643.