When Lila Lapanja’s season ended in March, she was one of many looking for an opportunity.
A six-year veteran of the U.S. Ski Team and three-time NorAm Cup slalom champion, Lapanja has spent her entire junior and senior ski racing career chasing consistency in her technical and tactical approach. When her time with the national team came to an end in 2017, Lapanja’s motivation was far from over. She has tapped into the top level of skiing and is ready to find her top speed and potential on the World Cup circuit as an independent athlete.
When COVID-19 cut her season short, Lapanja took advantage of a five-month off-snow hiatus to spend her preparation period focusing on physical and mental gains. It was a unique model for Lapanja, who has never taken that much time off snow. But she came into the 2020-21 season with superior physical preparation that allowed her to make exponential gains when she returned to the hill earlier this fall.
For Lapanja, being an independent athlete means building relationships and partnerships for her skiing, finances, and emotions. Her father has been a lifelong mentor and coach in that realm, as has many past World Cup coaches. With enhanced COVID-19 restrictions and limited World Cup credentials available at races, this year Lapanja is relying on the support of a two-person team — her ski technician, Eric Dasko, and herself.
Lapanja spent the early season free skiing along Dasko’s side. Dasko has a natural coaching eye and innovative mind, which allowed Lapanja to explore new ideas on how to advance her technique and tactics. Without a head coach, Lapanja believes there is an opportunity to learn, to trust herself and put her many years of experience and knowledge directly into her own pursuit. A student of the sport, Lapanja feels she is still learning how to make her technique consistent by finding true synchronicity between her body and mind.
“I have been focused on ways to open that up and feel different things in my body,” said Lapanja. “It’s been less about analyzing my skiing and breaking it down frame by frame and more about what I am feeling. I really feel like you get to a point mentally where you know all that stuff, but ultimately at the end of the day you need to have those images in your mind and have that feeling, that’s how you can really start to change with stuff in your skiing.”
This approach is something new for Lapanja, and it has changed her entire perspective when it comes to training and race day. She seeks a balance as the mind communicates with the body without any interference from her conscious self. When it comes on race day, it is really exciting. When it doesn’t, Lapanja turns to an open mindset that allows her to keep exploring her skiing in a positive light.
The 26-year-old has kept sheer curiosity when it comes to her skiing, inspiring her to further develop and set goals to see how far she can go. Lapanja acknowledges that her career has consisted of a bit of luck, and is fortunate she has found financial support through sponsors and emotional support through family. But the majority of her success has come from her internal belief in herself, a belief that has kept her pursuing the sport for as long as she has.
“I just feel like I am still growing and that my skiing is still getting better,” she said. “I am curious how far I can go, and that hunger and drive kinda comes from that unknown, combined with that belief that I have more to give to the sport I love.”
Last season, Lapanja skied her way to a NorAm slalom title, and got the sign she needed to continue racing in the World Cup this year, as her win guaranteed a World Cup slalom start through the entire 2020-21 season. In the last five years racing the World Cup, Lapanja has stepped into the start gate 23 times — two of those races ended with World Cup points. Of those two World Cup point finishes, one of them was at her opening race of the season in Levi, when Lapanja finished 25th. The other was a 23rd-place finish in 2016 at Flachau, where Lapanja will return for a final chance to make it to the World Championships at Cortina in the coming weeks.
Lapanja’s motivation is no less than it ever has been. The feelings of excitement and preparedness flood Lapanja as she heads to Flachau, which represents a homecoming of her first World Cup success. She is familiar with the hill and the technical skiing required to excel at Flachau, and feels confident that her focus across disciplines has prepared her for consistent skiing that she needs for a top-30 finish.
“Success doesn’t necessarily have to mean winning a World Cup or an Olympic medal for every single person,” said Lapanja. “I have broken through and I know I am capable of really strong results at the World Cup. The goal this year is consistency in my skiing that allows me to do it more often.”
If unable to qualify for World Championships in Flachau, Lapanja’s next World Cup start will not be until Jasna, Slovakia in March.