Basalt’s Hailey Swirbul readies for her first ski races at the Beijing Winter Olympics
Cross-country skier is part of a powerful U.S. women’s team that is expected to make some noise this month in China
Hailey Swirbul remains one of the most admired athletes in the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club community. A lot of it stems from her rising status within the U.S. cross-country ski team and with her being named to this year’s Olympic roster, but it’s so much more.
What really makes Swirbul stand out is her passion not only for her sport but for her teammates and coaches, her wax technicians and her dietitians. According to AVSC Nordic program director August Teague, Swirbul is the embodiment of what the club dreams its athletes can become.
“We get pride because she comes home and engages with the club. She is not someone that passed through the club for a couple of seasons,” Teague said. “That level of attention to her team and to that community is something we still talk about. … More than the pride is that personal relationship she has created with a group of 80 to 100 kids that are currently in the program.”
The 23-year-old graduate of Basalt High School is always proud to display her AVSC roots — not to mention a nod to the BHS Longhorns — on the international stage, and that includes this month at the Beijing Olympics. Swirbul has become a centerpiece on a young U.S. women’s cross-country ski team, and her rapid rise has resulted in a trip to her first Winter Games.
“I feel really honored and excited to have the opportunity to race on this team,” Swirbul said in a recent interview with The Aspen Times from the U.S. team’s pre-Olympic camp in Italy. “It’s definitely been an overarching goal for the last couple of years with this Games looming, and it’s my first Olympics cycle where I’ve actually been in contention for it. It’s been really exciting to go through all the races and all the training and all the hard work over the last couple of years. Honestly, over the last decade.”
Swirbul was 10 when she started cross-country ski racing. But when thinking back, her first dreams of becoming an Olympian were inspired by Hannah Kearney, one of the country’s all-time greats in freestyle skiing, who won Olympic gold in 2010.
“I remember being a kid and watching Hannah … the moguls skier with the little pigtails,” Swirbul recalled. “I remember watching her on TV when I was a kid and being, ‘Whoa, that’s so cool. What do you have to do to get there?’ But it wasn’t until probably my mid-teens in high school that it kind of hit me that I could potentially become an Olympian myself if I worked hard and everything lined up in my favor.”
Like most Olympic athletes, Swirbul was gifted with strong genetics, as was her brother, Keegan Swirbul, who became a professional cyclist. Their parents were good athletes, but not at the level of their children.
Their mother, Rebecca Swirbul, who is a respiratory therapist at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, said both kids have their grandfather’s body type — “long and lengthy” — but they never knew about their potential as endurance athletes as he died from excessive smoking.
“Definitely a proud moment. We didn’t ever force the kids to do athletics,” Rebecca Swirbul said of now having an Olympian in the family. “I didn’t really do much of anything other than support on our end. It definitely all came from Hailey just wanting to be the best she could be at any given time. She had that drive just naturally. It’s very exciting.”
Hailey Swirbul’s ascension to the Olympic stage was propelled by her results at the 2018 junior world championships in Goms, Switzerland. It was there she won her second and third medals — her first coming a year earlier as part of a relay in Soldier Hollow, Utah — that made her the most decorated junior worlds athlete in U.S. cross-country skiing history, a feat now matched only by Alaska’s Gus Schumacher, a fellow first-time Olympian.
She earned her first nomination to the U.S. ski team in spring 2018 and made her first World Cup start on Jan. 12, 2019, taking 41st in a freestyle sprint in Dresden, Germany. Her first World Cup podium came two seasons later when she finished third in a 10-kilometer freestyle on Dec. 12, 2020, in Davos, Switzerland.
Swirbul also was named to the world championships team for the first time last season.
Even with this early success, Swirbul was never overly confident she would make the U.S. Olympic roster this winter considering the depth and talent on the women’s team.
“I wish I could say confidently that, ‘Yep, I’ve got a plan for this.’ I think we have such a strong group right now that I wasn’t sure I was going to have a spot on this team, because our teammates are all racing really well,” she said. “I didn’t count my chickens before they hatched. But definitely coming into this season I felt a bit of pressure, just because I was a member of the A team, because I had a pretty good breakthrough year in a lot of people’s eyes last season. So I had a lot of pressure from myself.”
Collecting World Cup points has been a secondary goal for the U.S. team this season, instead focusing on a slow build toward the Beijing Games. Coming into the Olympics, Swirbul ranks 38th in the overall World Cup standings — she’s 23rd in distance and 39th in sprint — which is fourth among Americans. Jessie Diggins, the reigning overall World Cup champion, is third, Rosie Brennan is 15th and Julia Kern is 28th. That foursome will be at the center of what the U.S. women hope will be another successful Olympics this month in China.
Sophia Laukli, Novie McCabe, Hannah Halvorsen and Caitlin Patterson make up the remainder of the eight-woman U.S. roster for the Olympics. Only Diggins, Brennan and Patterson have competed at the Games before. On the six-skier men’s roster, only Scott Patterson, brother to Caitlin, has been to the Olympics, meaning 10 of the 14 Americans competing in cross-country skiing in China are first-time Olympians.
“I’m really excited,” Swirbul said. “I don’t know what to expect. A, because I haven’t been to the Olympics, but also just because of it being in a place that not many people have been to and with COVID and everything, I think it will be a unique experience and one that I am not soon to forget.”
Swirbul said she plans to compete in the first race of the Olympics, Saturday’s women’s skiathlon, which combines both the classic and skating techniques. A late afternoon start at the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre in China, that race will begin just after midnight here in the Roaring Fork Valley.
She also hopes to compete in the women’s 10-kilometer classic race on Feb. 10, with starts after that dependent on earlier race results. Swirbul is eyeing the women’s 4×5-kilometer relay on Feb. 12, an event the Americans are a popular darkhorse podium contender for.
The U.S. women come into the Olympics with as much hype as they’ve ever had considering the success of 2018, when Diggins and the now-retired Kikkan Randall won a team sprint in Pyeongchang, the first-ever Olympic gold for U.S. cross-country skiing, men or women. Only Bill Koch’s Olympic silver in 1976 also adorns the country’s Winter Games trophy case.
The 30-year-old Diggins will be among the most talked about American skiers or snowboarders at the Olympics this year, along with Shaun White, Chloe Kim and Mikaela Shiffrin, an exciting prospect for the further growth of cross-country skiing in the U.S.
“With the momentum from performances over the last Olympic cycle and since, that leaves our team feeling really excited knowing the potential we have,” Swirbul said while again pointing out the team’s overall youth and how that could factor in. “There is going to be a lot more excitement and learning rather than thinking of this as solely a place to perform. I think that’s actually really healthy. We all get caught up in medals at the Olympics, but I hope everyone competing or watching remembers what the Olympics are actually about. It’s about coming together as a world and putting everything aside, peacefully, to compete in sports. That’s really important, too.”