Swirbul embraces team aspect as stakes keep rising entering the Olympic season
Basalt High School graduate was officially re-nominated to the U.S. cross-country ski team on Wednesday
This past season brought with it Hailey Swirbul’s greatest individual result as a professional cross-country ski racer. But any real satisfaction she received always came when racing alongside her teammates, notably during March’s world championships.
“I learned a lot of important lessons this year about why I’m doing this sport and what I want to carry with me,” Swirbul said in a recent interview with The Aspen Times. “It made me realize it’s racing with the team and for the team and the experiences that involve other people that means a lot more and just makes me a lot happier and feel connected to the sport and my teammates.”
The 22-year-old Basalt High School graduate just completed her third season on the U.S. ski team. Despite the trying nature of competing during a pandemic, this past winter came with many major steps forward for the former Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club standout. That list includes her first World Cup podium as well as her first time competing at the world championships.
And going forward, the stakes are likely to get a lot higher. On Wednesday, U.S. Ski & Snowboard officially announced its 2021-22 national team nominations for cross-country skiing, with Swirbul being one of only three women initially selected to the A team. The others are 2018 Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins and veteran Rosie Brennan, who is coming off a breakout season.
With a few key names having just retired, such as Sophie Caldwell Hamilton and Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, Swirbul looks to be one of the key pieces leading the U.S. women into next winter’s Olympic season.
“What I get really excited about is the dynamic of the group and watching things shift and trying to maximize the chemistry. So we will need athletes like Hailey to maximize their potential as a leader and she is a great one already,” said Matt Whitcomb, the U.S. cross-country ski team’s head coach. “She can go so hard. And I tell you what, she has figured out her technique. She and her club coaches have done a remarkable job. While perhaps I wasn’t expecting it on that day when she got her first podium in Davos this season, I wasn’t exactly surprised.”
Swirbul’s individual highlight came on Dec. 13 when she finished third in a 10-kilometer freestyle in Davos, Switzerland, her first and to date only career World Cup podium. Making a World Cup podium was certainly a career goal for Swirbul, but not something she planned to check off her list this soon.
And, according to her, the most surprising part was how little satisfaction came with the result. On March 4 at the world championships in Germany, Swirbul was part of a relay team with Diggins, Brennan and Maubet Bjornsen that took fourth, which to her was a far more rewarding experience than her individual result.
“I was happy and surprised, but I never totally felt fulfilled by it, which was kind of interesting. I think I’m learning what drives me and trying to find that balance in this individual sport,” Swirbul said of her podium. “I am glad I got to experience (world championships) this year so I can take what I learned there and move forward with it. Every new experience just helps you develop into a better athlete and a better person, if that’s what you want it to do.”
Fulfilled or not, the accomplishments are noteworthy for the young skier. Swirbul finished 23rd in the overall World Cup standings this season, third among the American women. That list was topped by Minnesota’s Diggins, who became the first American woman to win the overall World Cup title. Brennan finished fourth overall in what was a historic season for the U.S.
“In many ways, I’m not surprised, if that makes sense. I know how capable Jessie is and what she’s accomplished already,” Swirbul said. “Maybe I’m ahead of schedule this year, but maybe a future year I’ll be a step behind. You never really know. I’m pretty surprised and happy with how everything went in the end for me. I couldn’t have really asked for much more in terms of results.”
While Swirbul has been able to fly under the radar a bit these past couple of seasons, both the external and internal expectations surrounding her are likely to rise astronomically entering this upcoming Olympic season. She’s not just on the short list to make her first Olympic team in 2022, but has to be considered among the most important pieces in getting the U.S. back onto an Olympic podium.
Diggins, along with Kikkan Randall, who has since retired, brought home the country’s first Olympic gold medal in the sport in 2018 and there will be a lot of eyes on the team entering the Beijing Games less than a year from now.
“It’s pretty unique, because it almost certainly wasn’t on her list of goals for that season,” Whitcomb said of Swirbul’s podium. “I’m sure it’s on her list of goals for her career, but to accomplish something that is outside of even your reach of goals this season, it kind of catches you by surprise.”
Swirbul is currently back in Alaska, where she is attending college and training through the Alaska Pacific University club program, which has also produced the likes of Brennan and Randall, among many others.
While physical training remains of utmost importance, Swirbul also is on track to complete her undergraduate degree in engineering in time for a December graduation, meaning she could have a diploma in hand prior to her first Olympic Games.
“I’ve spent so many years now talking about this year coming up and having it be such a big focus,” Swirbul said of the Olympic season. “I’m hoping to be able to manage that extra pressure being added on and use it as motivation to go and represent the U.S.A. there in Beijing. I think it’s an important time for me to remember that I don’t need to completely reinvent myself. What I’ve done has worked for me and I need to stay true to what that means for me.”
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