Raising The Bar
When the NorAm season kicks off in Loveland, Colo., this weekend, it will include the familiar face of Lila Lapanja, a fixture on the U.S. Ski Team since she was first nominated at age 16 in 2011. Since then, the Nevada native climbed through the ranks, earning two NorAm slalom titles, overcoming a back injury that kept her from racing for 18 months, and scoring points in only her third World Cup start.
This season, however, Lapanja will not be wearing a U.S. Ski Team uniform. Instead, she’ll be sporting a bold new look as part of Team CLIF Bar Ski Racing. After what she describes as “a rollercoaster ride of results” last season – her first full year on the World Cup circuit – Lapanja was not renominated to the national team last spring. At age 22, Lapanja fell outside the performance band algorithm that U.S. Ski & Snowboard coaches and management use to determine which athletes receive funding and team status.
Initially shocked and disheartened, Lapanja retrenched and asked herself some soul-searching questions. ”I knew I had more speed and that I brought vibrancy and value to the ski racing worldwide community,” explains Lapanja. The answer to her questions was always the same: “I am a ski racer!” She needed a plan, so she turned to her longtime supporters, Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford – owners and chief visionary officers of CLIF Bar.
Gary Erickson first met Lapanja when she was 13 and racing in the Tahoe area with his own daughter. From the start, something about her focus and demeanor got his attention. “I thought, ‘This is somebody special.’” Along the way he and Kit got to know Lapanja and her family. When Lapanja was first nominated to the U.S. Ski Team, Gary and Kit were able to support her with a scholarship through the CLIF Bar Family Foundation. When Nature Valley did not renew as a U.S. Ski Team sponsor in 2016, CLIF Bar signed on as an official sponsor, enabling CLIF skiers Lapanja and Stacey Cook as well as several newly sponsored athletes to wear CLIF on their helmets.
Gary, Kit, and Lapanja got to work and “put on our ski racing thinking caps,” says Lila. Erickson explains, “I was a C student, dyslexic, with ADD and never read a book until after college,” so he naturally appreciates talent that falls outside a prescribed path. He looked at this challenge through a business lens, and specifically how CLIF supports struggling employees. “He [CEO Kevin Cleary] says, ‘What can we do for you to have your best year yet?’”
What evolved from that question was the vision for Team CLIF Bar Ski Racing, “an independent, corporate-supported, world-class ski team that will serve as an elite platform to achieve excellence in Olympic and World Cup Alpine Skiing.” The first major step for assembling Team CLIF Bar Ski Racing was hiring coach Mauro Pini. Pini was head coach of the Swiss women’s team from 2009-2012, and previously worked as a private coach with Maria Rienda Contreras and Lara Gut. Most recently, Pini worked with Tina Maze heading into the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where Maze won two gold medals.
Next, Slovenian Bojan Hribar signed on to provide ski service. With many roles left to fill, Lila’s father Vojko stepped in as, among other things, assistant coach. This is a familiar and welcome role for Vojko, who came to the U.S. directly from the Slovenian national team in 1991 to race for Sierra Nevada College. He coached Lila as a junior racer on the Diamond Peak Ski Team, and, most importantly to him, they have always enjoyed a good relationship on and off the hill.
Officially, Gary Erickson is president of Team CLIF Bar Ski Racing, though he stays out of technical and scheduling decisions. One of his favorite duties thus far was helping Dave McLaughlin, the designer behind Team CLIF Bar Cycling, to create the CLIF Bar ski uniform. The full team kit of speed suits, jackets, shorts and pants boldly features the CLIF name and new team logo. “It’s going to be loud because we are an international brand,” he explains.
Once the team was in place, the training plan came together, starting with a new strength and conditioning program. Lapanja worked with trainer Nick Ward of Barton Performance by ALTIS – the new, U.S. Skiing-affiliated performance facility in South Lake Tahoe. “Physically I am much stronger now,” says Lapanja. “My physical strength fortifies me mentally, making me feel more confident and prepared.”
Summer and fall training included camps at Mammoth, Ushuaia, and Saas-Fee. Along the way, Lapanja has been welcomed to train with national teams from Slovenia, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Norway, Austria, Canada, and Great Britain, among others. “It’s been awesome,” says Vojko, who will go to as many races as he can while running his property management business back home. “All the teams have been happy to have her and to have the extra help on the hill.”
The focus during this preparation period has been on staying positive and patient in the process of rebuilding Lapanja’s skiing. “My main goal is to have consistency and reliability in my skiing by re-establishing my fundamentals. Balance, stability, technique and timing naturally evolve into top speed,” she explains. Hailed as a three-event skier throughout her development, Lapanja’s training in recent seasons skewed heavily to slalom. Now she has added giant slalom and some super-G to the mix. “I am most excited about this aspect of my training. I had forgotten how much GS and super-G feed my ski racing soul.”
Ultimately, Lapanja hopes to earn a spot as a full-time World Cup skier; her competition plan will harness the momentum she and her team built during the off-season, and reflect the best way not only to reach the World Cup, but to stay there. Her immediate focus is qualifying for Killington via the Colorado NorAms and securing starts in the additional Olympic-qualifier World Cup races in December and January 2018. “Another goal has been to foster a healthy environment with Mauro and Bojan,” says Lapanja. “Mauro is very professional and precise but keeps concepts simple and in good humor. He expects improvement effort and energy, which challenges me and acknowledges positive change, which keeps me motivated. We are a strong team.”
Erickson believes performance is closely tied to culture. “Culture is such a positive way to build team,” he says. “We are creating a culture on this small team that mimics the culture at CLIF Bar, with the same aspirations and values that CLIF Bar has.” Likewise, CLIF supports athletes who are hardworking, fun-loving, and friendly. Erickson has said that “we would rather sponsor someone who came in second place and is humble than another who came in first but is arrogant.” He hints at the possibility of adding new sponsors and other athletes in the future, but for now: “Let’s just get through this year!”
Even with the support of CLIF Bar, the Team continues to seek sustainable funding by engaging additional sponsors and patrons. That includes holding benefit trunk shows (Salaam Clothing), talking to companies, and reaching out to people and groups who know Lila and have supported her in the past. “We are always open to working with new partners,” says Vojko, who finds the challenge of the new venture both exciting and rewarding. “We are fired up!” he says with downright exuberance. “I haven’t been this excited about ski racing in a long time.”
The team’s enthusiasm reflects Lila’s outlook: “I’m deeply embracing the process this year. I know what I want the outcome to be, but my entire focus is on feeling free, feeling my top speed, and enjoying racing again. Simply put, I love ski racing and its lifestyle; I love being an athlete, training, exploring and embracing the constant challenge of becoming the best. This is the life I dream of living, and I’m all in.”