On the rise: Lila Lapanja steadily climbing ski racing ranks
There are people whose paths you cross in life who have a big spirit. Something about them is just, well, different.
U.S. Ski Team member and 2014 NorAm slalom champion Lila Lapanja from Incline Village is one of these people.
Both on and off the hill, an amalgam of balanced intensity, grace, flow and a little bit of mystery emanates from Lapanja.
It’s likely that these same character traits connect Lapanja to the snow leopard, and one of the many reasons she recently became their official ambassador. When Lapanja is at her best, she feels she embodies the traits of the snow leopard and is living life the way she was meant to live.
“I am very interested in nature and animals,” she said. “I think it is very important to understand the lives of animals and find ways to preserve their habitat and appreciate their beauty.”
It’s no surprise Lapanja is fast and fierce on the slopes; ski racing is in her blood.
Slovenian-born Vojko Lapanja — formerly of the Slovenian National Team and a longtime Diamond Peak Ski Team coach — is her father. As a result, Lapanja has had a passion for the sport since before she can even remember.
Her Slovenian ski roots meant Lapanja traveled throughout her childhood on somewhat of an alternate path, and with a different perspective than most of her peers.
As a child, Lapanja grew up visiting her family in Slovenia every summer. However, when she made the U.S. Ski Team, she made the biggest sacrifice she’s ever made when she realized that if she wanted to commit to ski racing, those summer days would have to be devoted to training.
“Sacrifices are bearable for me because I know I’m pursuing something incredible,” Lapanja said.
Growing up, Lapanja wasn’t star-struck by athletes on the World Cup circuit, but she recalls having a feeling of immense awe when she’d train at the same venues as World Cup skiers. As she became older, this sense of awe transformed into a strong belief that this is where she felt at home — on the mountain, at this level, doing what she loves most.
She laughed as she mentioned that she did (and still does) have a major ski crush on Bode Miller. “Who doesn’t?” she said with a smile.
Lapanja has certainly grown into her own and come a long way since she was a little wide-eyed skier girl. She has overcome challenges she’s encountered in her career with maturity and grace and she attributes the key to her success in training as staying present — focusing completely on moment-to-moment tasks while loving every bit of it.
So what’s Lapanja’s secret? She manages challenges through asking the question, “Why?” From there, she works backwards to find possible solutions.
“I believe that most challenges I face in life are manifestations of what I need to overcome in order to become a master,” she says with a sly smile. “So I suppose as I reach personal mastery you’ll discover which challenges I’ve overcome.”
That grit is what shines through Lapanja radiantly.
The U.S. Ski Team took some time to sit down with Lapanja to explore what makes her a champion. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: In your words, what makes a champion?
A: “A champion, to me, is someone who really takes ownership of their career, and is able to express that to the people they work around. They own their success, they own their defeat, they own everything about their life, and when that decision is made … that’s when you can really become a champion.”
Q: Do you remember the first time you felt like a champion? Tell us about that moment.
A: “The first time I felt like a champion was after I had won my slalom NorAm overall title. I had had a really long season, and I didn’t even realize I had the opportunity to win the title, but that last race in Calgary when I was clicking out of my skis and the coach came up to congratulate me, I realized I had World Cup starts and had made the next giant step into my career. I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride in my skiing and how much more I have to build off from that platform I had created for myself through hard work, determination, perseverance and sheer love for the sport.”
Q: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring kids who want to be sitting where you are today?
A: “My best advice, athlete to athlete, is to really take care of your body. Honor your body, love your body, learn what it likes, what makes it feel good. When you’re taking care of your body, you’re going to find that your confidence is going to skyrocket. You’re really going to be feeling good, and that’s when you’re going to start pushing yourself as an athlete, and discovering that the mental barriers are going to be a lot easier to overcome. So, my best advice is to take care of your body, and you will be one step closer to becoming a champion. Countless people support me unconditionally in so many different ways. They still do. I’m so grateful to have friends, family, ski racing fans and people all over the world who love following my Olympic and World Cup quests. Excellence requires a team … we are on this journey together.”