Lila Lapanja Four-Time Champion Alpine Ski Racer, Naturalist, Adventurer and Mountain Biker-North Lake Tahoe

Posted By: Eric Smith In: Fitness On: Friday, May 24, 2024

Lila offers insights on her journey and passion for slalom skiing, how it impacts her life as a champion, and valuable keys to success as an athlete.

Where were you recently in competition?  Italy?

It was in Italy, then we went to Scandinavia and then we had a bunch of races in Sweden and Norway.  I came home and then went to U.S. Nationals in Sun Valley Idaho, so I’ve been on the road since I talked to you in February.   I’ve been going non-stop and this has been my first couple of days at home to feel like I can finally do laundry, put all my clothes away, go for a walk, and take my dog outside-finally.

When you are on these trips for competition are you skiing 5 out of 7 days per week?  What’s the schedule of demands for someone at your level?

It’s a pretty demanding schedule actually.  During the wintertime, we’ll have between 15-30 races a year which doesn’t sound like a lot but when you add in each weekend with the travel and everything it builds up.  And when we are not racing, usually, the longest break I’ll have is maybe three or four days where I have a chance to go to the gym and reset my body physically or take some time off for racing.

I’m very lucky in that my father’s family lives in Slovenia in Europe, he’s Slovenian so I have a little bit of a home base in Europe that I can go to, that a lot of other North American athletes don’t have.  So, I’m lucky in that sense.  But for the most part, we’ll usually train three to four days, take a day off to rest the body, and then go back to train three or four days, take a day off, race one or two days, take a day off, train three or four days…that’s kind of the flow of ski racing.  So you’re probably doing something 5 or 6 days a week.

So you're up around what time?

My favorite alarm to set is 6:06am.  But sometimes I’ll have to wake up earlier-depending on when the mountains open, and what time training is scheduled.

On race days I’ll wake up a bit earlier-usually somewhere between 5:15 and 5:30am.  It just depends on what time the schedule is, I try to give myself an hour and half to two hours before I have to leave.  I like taking my time in the morning.  I take my time, I'm not someone who rushes and can get everything done in 30 minutes.  I like having time for breakfast and to just get out of bed slowly-so yeah, somewhere between 5:15 and 5:30am that’s my schedule. 

What’s a typical breakfast for you?

A typical breakfast is two eggs, usually, I like them soft-boiled in Europe, if I can find them.  If not, I like them fried.  And then I’ll usually do a bowl of cereal with a little bit of greek yogurt or something like that.  So if there’s pancakes, crepes or something, I might throw one of those on there or I’ll throw a croissant on there.  But my staples are usually the eggs and cereal with yogurt, maybe a little granola.

That will take you through morning skiing and then a break for lunch? 

So that usually holds me over for 3 or 4 hours and then, you know our training sessions don’t usually go more than 3 or 4 hours.  So, we’ll come back eat lunch and then I’ll take a nap if there’s time and if not then I’ll go to the gym for some recovery training to keep maintaining the body through the year.  I try to balance out the load from skiing with other exercises just to keep the body balanced.  It can be very challenging to do that when you’re constantly in hotels and on the road.  But the most important thing is rest and sleeping as much as I can, I prioritize that when I can. 

So this year you’ve had how many races?

I don’t know the exact count-I mostly race the slalom event.  We have several disciplines in our sport within the umbrella of ski racing.  There are different events or different disciplines that we race, and I predominantly race the slalom event.  And I believe I’ve had about 15 or 20 races so far.

Are there any events that stand out, that you really looked forward to did well in and want to highlight?

I actually had a really solid year, successful.  As a ski racer and as an athlete you always want more.  You always believe you are capable of more.  But I actually did really well for where I was at.

There’s basically two circuits that I race and compete on. One is the World Cup Circuit-which is basically the Olympic level of ski racing.  So all of the athletes that go to the Olympics, the World Cup is the seasonal circuit that they all race.  And then right below that level, is called the Europa Cup Circuit, so these are the athletes that compete on the World Cup and athletes that are trying to qualify for the World Cup for their respective nations.  So these are the two levels that I bounce between.

It was actually my first season ever competing on the full Europa Cup Circuit, so I did it from the first race to the last race for the whole entire series.  I was the only North American athlete competing for that matter, between the U.S. and Canada, finishing 12th overall in the standings.  And that was my best ranking ever competing at that level.  I had three top 10s, which the top 10 results qualified me for the World Cup races, so then I was able to compete in 5 or 6 World Cup races because of my results on the Europa Cup.

Two races in particular stand out to me this year.  One was a race in Austria where I was on the Europa Cup and I needed a top ten if I wanted to race in the next World Cup, so it was kind of like a win-or-go-home situation-and I ended up finishing fourth overall on that day.  That was my best result ever.  I was only 700th of a second off the podium-so I had a really good performance that qualified me for the next World Cup races.  Then two World Cup races later I ended up scoring World Cup points, which means in our sport, your goal is to finish in the top 30 in the world-for each race, then work your way up to the top 15, top 10, top 5.  So when you get a top 30 result in the World Cup it’s actually something to celebrate because it is quite competitive and you’re playing in the game with the top 30 athletes in the entire world of ski racing.

So that was a really great race for me, really motivating, really exciting and I was just happy I could put two great race runs together in one day, and show I belonged with that group, I’m skiing well and deserved to be there.

Most recently I just got back from U.S. National Championships in Sun Valley Idaho, about two weeks ago where I raced in the Slalom.  Actually having won this event last year, I was able to defend my title again-this year!


Slalom and downhill those are two different categories?

Yes, two different ski disciplines.

What is Slalom racing for those who aren't versed on the details?

Slalom is what we would call the slowest most technical event.  With slalom the gates are going to be closer together, so downhill to contrast, downhill is the speed event and slalom is a technical event.  In downhill the gates are spaced really far apart and the speeds are really high.  In downhills, you could be going up to 80 miles an hour. 

Slalom is more technical, it’s a demanding technique from the skier with timing, but because the gates are closer together it can still feel like a really fast event because it’s more like a gymnastics routine, where once you start running across the floor or on the balance beam and go for your flip-you have to be all in and committed, there’s no space for hesitation.  It’s very instinctual with things happening really fast.  And in slalom, the gates are a single pole and we have protection on our body-we have a mouth bar, pole guards protecting our hands and shin guards protecting the shins covering of our legs and we actually hit through the gate.  So the plastic is bendable and we have to time our spacing to knock down these gates and they’re set at different distances, different rhythms, different patterns-of course there are rules to follow.  But every single slalom course you’ll ski in your life, is completely different so every time you go down a course in a race, you’re skiing a course no one’s ever skied before ever.

Whereas in downhill, downhill has to follow more of the flow and contortion of the hill, and so downhills are typically set the same year to year, with variations coming from snow conditions, weather conditions, and stuff like that.  People who race downhill can start to remember these courses, kind of like a race car track, and have an idea of what’s it’s going to be like.  But with slalom, you might race the same hills but the course you’re actually skiing is different every single time. 

LilaLapjanaSlalomRacing-Photo Credit-GEPA/Harald Steiner

Photo credit-GEPA/Harald Steiner

Well, it sounds like fun!

It’s very fun, when you know what you’re doing.  If your body is not ready, if you’re mentally kind of tired or you’re fatigued or your body feels a bit out of shape or if you haven’t gotten enough sleep, all of those nuances really compound in slalom because you have to be really explosive and really fast with your thinking and physical movement.  So when it’s going well it’s really fun because you can navigate the timing and play in the course and feel.  You're just playful and can feel the speed and the change in speeds.  When it’s not going well, it feels like you’re just running into a wall at every turn because you’re not getting any feedback from the snow or the ski-it just feels slow and makes your body even more tired because you’re not as efficient.  So, it’s one of those double-edged swords, which is why throughout the season you have to stay so on top of your recovery and health game to ensure that you can show up every race as best as you can.

What activities do you engage in for recreation that help keep you is shape for skiing?

Mountain biking is one activity.  This is amazing cross-training for skiers in general.  And I really like to bike actually.  I don’t road bike anymore because Lake Tahoe doesn’t have many safe accessible roads for road biking. 

Why I enjoy mountain biking so much is you actually get a lot of benefits that correlate to skiing. You not only get your cardiovascular fitness ready, but there are natural interval fluctuations that happen when you’re on a mountain bike.   When you have to go uphill and have a slope that goes down, then back up, you are naturally varying your heart rate and the demands on your muscles in your legs-while also building strength in your quads and your lower body to push.  When skiing, you have to have power strength in your legs to make a good safe turn.  On top of that, with mountain biking there is a lot of visual stimulation and coordination stimulation.  Watching the trail, finding your spacing around obstacles, rocks and on the downhills there’s a bit of play that you have to do with managing the speed.  Things come at you fast mountain biking, where you have to make technical decisions quickly and so, mountain biking is actually great cross-training for skiing. 

The one thing I started to move away from was having most of my cardio training indoors, and moving outside.  Mountain biking naturally takes care of a lot of the fitness training I need as a skier.

That said, I can’t rely on it completely.  Ski racing demands every single quality as an athlete.  You have qualities like balance, coordination, endurance, flexibility, speed, and strength.  Mountain biking helps fill some of those gaps.

And I do go to the gym a lot.  I enjoy physical training.  I do a lot of natural movement-based strength.  But I don’t do a lot of heavy weight lifting. 

As I’ve matured, in my own body, I've found I don’t need as much weight on my body.  I just need to be able to move weight functionally.  It’s not just about being able to do the perfect squat, but can you do a squat while walking up a hill?  Can you do a lateral lunge and change the speed at which you do it?  Those things are more important than if I can put a 150lbs on my back and do a perfect linear movement.

To be clear, I have to take ownership of my strength, training, and conditioning because I don’t have a full-time coach.  Thankfully, I have great mentors who help me combine the different qualities that I need.

The other thing that I really like to do is track training.  A lot of my training will be on a track doing different sprints or different directional changes or on a field like soccer drills and stuff like this.

Variety is good, but having two or three things you can do consistently and showing up doing those things throughout the summer yields huge benefits.  It’s really about showing up and having a structured plan at the end of the day.

How important is flexibility?

The most important thing to think about with flexibility as an athlete is functional ranges of flexibility.  Can you be strong in a deeper range in your body? 

Say, you can’t touch your toes, but you do a movement where you have to touch your toes in an athletic way where you’re going past what your body’s comfortable with.  If you don’t train in those ranges how do you expect to be able to move in those ranges under pressure, under stress, and under athletic performance demands.

When I’m thinking of flexibility I don’t have any specific goals, like hitting splits or anything.  It’s more like what’s the maximum range that I need to maintain in my own body for how my own muscle structures work to make sure that if I get into weird positions or if I make a big mistake on skis and go into a weird split position, I have at least trained or stretched that position and added a little bit of strength training bodyweight training in that position to handle it.  Flexibility at the end of the day is about injury prevention.

What’s the environment like when you are competing at the professional level?  And how do you approach that?

That's taken years to learn.  To determine, like what would work for me in those environments.  Much of it follows my psychological state.  If I’m not feeling confident for some reason or I don’t feel ready to perform,  I personally feel like I enter a very toxic, like a toxic intensity almost, where everyone's there to compete to win-everyone gets a bit serious and I just don’t feel good.

But you realize the experience that you have at this level is whatever experience you’re having inside of yourself.  I’ve trained and sometimes it takes time when you're looking for your momentum and your sweet spot.  But you can train yourself to be really excited to compete, to take those nerves and shift it to anticipation.  And then, once you enter those environments, where everyone else is kind of nervous or stressed and kind of questioning themselves, you have a completely different experience internally that buffers you from what everyone else is doing.

And there’s lots of little hacks for how you can do that.  One of my biggest things is on a race day, like at World Cup, they will typically have a video screen for the athletes who are competing later in the run in the race to watch other athletes compete, and you can watch the confidence drain out of these athletes when they’re watching athletes that they consider better than them because they’re starting earlier, they get disconnected with themselves and their own power.  So I’ve stopped watching other people race.  I try to ignore other people as much as I can on competition days.  But I do that in a very respectful and gracious way. 

Every athlete has their own personality on race day.  Some are just honest and really true to themselves and consistent whether it’s a training or race day.  Other people change drastically on a race day and don’t want to have anything to do with you.  Ultimately, at the end of the day, you just can’t take it personally.  Overall the environment at an alpine race is relatively intense.

How important is equipment?

Skiing is a very equipment-intensive sport. 

I’m in a unique situation where I’m not supported by the national team currently, so I have to race independently and finance my whole season independently.  I have to find coaches and people to work with independently-that’s all my responsibility. 

It’s a very challenging situation to be in, but what it has also taught me is where my priorities need to be as an athlete.  And I would say, if I only had the budget to choose between a coach, a physical therapist or ski technician-which are the people that make sure your ski edges are sharp your bases are waxed and the equipment is working; if I only had the budget for one of those people I would pick the ski technician.  

Because, the equipment you feel under your feet, how the skis are responding to you in the snow and giving you feedback, really can affect your confidence and what you feel you’re able to produce into the edges and into the snow.  

So you really want to find a ski technician who knows you well as an athlete, can connect with you as a person, can do day of testing on your skis without you having to overthink it yourself, and then on race day find a ski that when you click into you just feel good-like it’s a part of your body.

I ski for a company called Stöckli.  It’s a Swiss Ski Company.  They make great skis and all of their skis are handmade.  I ski predominately on my race skis, whether slalom or giant slalom and those skis are very specific to those types of courses and to those types of turn radius.  If I just want to go powder skiing I love a great pair of powder skis that can go with the flow-that’s like a treat for me in my sport.

And how important is fashion?  How important is your look or does it not matter when competing?

Well, as you and I know it really does not matter.  But, that said I value beauty, I really appreciate beauty.  It feels good to look good.  Like we know this and it can produce confidence.  It can produce an identity. 

So I wouldn’t call myself a fashionista that needs high profile brands by any means, but I like really high-quality gear.  For me I want the performance along with the look always.  Even when that comes to my normal fashion, whether I’m choosing shoes or whatever, I want to look good and have it look nice and classy but I need to be able to move in it-run, squat, jump.  These are what I think about when it comes to fashion.

I have a couple fashion dreams.  I would love to find a really great one-piece ski suit.  I like the idea of having that 70’s, 80’s classic look.  There are a couple of national teams in Europe that actually have one-piece outfits as part of their race outfits.  So that’s still something that’s missing from my quiver. 

At the end of the day I try not to overthink, and make sure I have quality gear on my body that showcases I’m a really good skier!