Why you should care
She could go from out-of-commission to gold in just a couple years.
Weeks ago, American slalom skier Lila Lapanja crept up to the edge of the slope during a training session in Switzerland. She stopped for a moment to consider her familiar surroundings. Two years prior, she’d stood at the same place, preparing for a season in which she’d be offered her first-ever place on the World Championship ski team. Her run ended with pain so intense it forced her to seek an explanation — a search that led to the realization that her spine was misaligned and required extensive rehab. Her 2014-15 season ended before it began.
This time, the wind on her face as she jumped into action was the same, but everything else about the run was different. “I don’t want to get too spiritual on you about that, because I could,” says 21-year-old Lapanja, speaking from Europe just before the first Ski World Cup event. “It was the best kind of déjà vu.”
Accolades have never eluded Lapanja. In 2011, she was named the western regional overall and junior slalom champion. In 2012, she was the U.S. junior combined (downhill and slalom ski racing) champion, and repeated the feat in 2013. Lapanja placed as the top American in slalom and giant slalom in her FIS Junior World Championships debut in 2013, where she finished 15th overall and improved to sixth overall in 2014, the same year she was crowned the NorAm slalom champion for the first time. Then Lapanja earned the honor of North American slalom champion for the second time and earned her first FIS World Cup points of her career during her 2015-16 comeback season.
“I’ve known of Lila since she was maybe 12 years old. This is the strongest that I’ve seen her coming into a season in a long time,” says Karin Harjo, Lapanja’s assistant coach under Magnus Andersson since May 2015, the early days of Lapanja’s rehab. “It’s time to find her a starting gate because she is ready.” Last year, Lapanja raised eyebrows when she finished second to fellow American Mikaela Shiffrin in the U.S. Championship slalom race in March toward the end of last season, proving she had the skill and speed to keep up with the best female slalom skier in the world right now.
Lapanja’s daydreams already float toward the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, but her focus is still very much on this coming season. Shiffrin has ruled the women’s slalom field, as she showed with a tidy victory in the season’s first race in Levi, Finland, earlier this month. In her post-event press conference, Shiffrin herself named Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener and Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova as her stiffest competition this season. The trio holds the first, third and fourth spots in the FIS World Cup points standings. Switzerland’s Lara Gut holds the second spot.
The biggest step toward the Olympics that Lapanja can take this season is reaching the World Cup final, an honor reserved for the top 25 in the points standings. After failing to qualify for a second run in Levi, Lapanja is nowhere to be seen on the table on the FIS website, which spans Nos. 1-45. However, Lapanja knows it’s a long season. “When I was 10 or 11, I wrote down every Winter Olympics I’d be able to potentially compete in. I wanted to know exactly what my window was,” Lapanja says. “The way I see it, I’ll have three shots at it: 2018, 2022 and 2026. But why wait?”
Lapanja comes from a family of skiers, not uncommon in the sport. The success Lapanja experienced between 2011 and 2014 was a dream come true not only for her, but also for her first coach and father, Vojko Lapanja. Vojko, formerly of the Slovenian National Ski Team, is a longtime Diamond Peak Ski Team coach in Incline Village, Nevada. He first put Lila on skis at age 2, in the spring of 1997, as a means of bonding with his daughter, and quickly began to notice Lila’s passion for skiing as well as her ability. When Lila was 16, her father had the chance to tell her she’d been appointed to the junior national team. He’s been by her side as a hybrid coach-cheerleader ever since.
Then came the injury. “I wasn’t disciplined at that point. I didn’t know how to take care of my body,” Lapanja says. “I didn’t have any warm-up routine; I didn’t have a strength and conditioning plan, specific or general.” During her time off skis, Lapanja healed and learned about her body. She sat with her doctors, who helped her understand that her injury was born from years of slightly improper movements. “Most back injuries are not back-related; they are a result of the back having to take too much stress from other parts of the body that aren’t doing their jobs,” says strength and fitness coach Roy Pumphrey, who trains ski instructors in the physiological understanding of the effect skiing has on the body. The amount of time that professionals put into honing skill can also lead to slowly developing injuries that, without the exact proper form at all times, can be just as debilitating as an acute injury.
Lapanja, energized by opening speeds that would have placed her among the top 15 in Levi if she’d been able to follow through in the flat, is particularly excited by the prospect of this weekend’s World Cup stop in Killington, Vermont, which began its preparation for the event to much fanfare over the past several weeks.
The East Coast, famously notorious for its unpredictable weather patterns, hasn’t hosted a World Cup stop in 25 years. Lapanja sees the stop as a challenge, but looks forward to every domestic World Cup stop — no language barriers or culture shock. “What I don’t want to happen is I get there and it’s super-icy and cold weather and I’m physically unprepared. I want to have faced those conditions recently in training,” Lapanja says.
Lapanja’s worst-case scenario may well come to pass: A high temperature near 40 degrees with rain on Saturday is certainly a very East Coast event forecast. The temperature is expected to drop 5 degrees on Sunday, turning rain to snow and, at its coldest, wet snow to ice and frost. Lapanja’s preparation should serve her well.
An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the 2018 Olympics.