U.S. ski team member Hailey Swirbul talks mental health ahead of uncertain season
Basalt High School graduate had a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener in Finland
Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe for the season, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener in Finland. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.
“I went through that a couple of days before leaving, deciding if it was worth it and made sense and if I was actually ready to go race and fight how I would in a normal year,” Swirbul said early last week from Ruka, Finland. “How can I go to Europe and race and be a positive influence when I don’t feel like that myself?”
The 22-year-old Swirbul, who is a graduate of Basalt High School and grew up with the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club, is in her third season with the U.S. cross country ski team. She started out on the development team her first season before being promoted to the B team last winter.
Now, she’s part of the women’s A team, a group that includes Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins, and maybe that has something to do with Swirbul’s doubts, as well. The A team also includes Julia Kern, Rosie Brennan, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, who is married to Aspen’s Simi Hamilton, the lone A team member on the men’s side.
“My goal was to try and make the B team again after last year, because that’s an awesome feat on its own. That was definitely my goal. But I wasn’t expecting to jump up to A,” Swirbul said. “The level of the top A team athletes on our team is insane. … They are amazing skiers that I still idolize, even though they are my teammates and I see them as friends now. But I don’t see myself on that level.”
The World Cup season got underway Friday in Finland despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, something that’ll likely continue to cast a shadow over the sport during the months ahead. This is an important winter, as it includes February’s world championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, and starts the process that ends with the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.
Swirbul, whether she admits it or not, is a pretty solid bet at this point to make that Olympic team for the first time. She’s a rising all-around skier who has done well in both sprint and distance races and doesn’t really specialize. However, she did say she wants to put a little more emphasis on the longer races this season, as she admits it’s “hard to be the best at everything.”
“I’ve always been about the same in all disciplines. I think that has kind of put me in a position where I haven’t been able to choose a solid goal,” Swirbul said. “That’s not very attainable, I would say. So this year I’m trying to shift my mindset to focus on distance races a little bit more.”
All of this is part of the juggling act that comes with being an aspiring Olympic skier who also is an active college student living through a pandemic. And this led up to Swirbul deciding to open up about her own mental health struggles, which she did so through an Instagram (@hai.swirl) post earlier this week.
“Talking about it is uncharted territory for me,” Swirbul said. “This all came to a peak literally five days before leaving, where I was kind of deciding, ‘Why am I going over to Europe right now?’”
Swirbul said she was struggling to find motivation, and not only in skiing, but also in other aspect’s of her life. This includes things like school stress, which was very much present before the pandemic, but has only been amplified by COVID-19’s arrival. She’s open to her U.S. teammates about her struggles, but hasn’t talked much outside of her little “bubble,” which has multiple meanings anymore.
Still, she obviously arrived in Europe ready to race. In Friday’s classic sprint, the first of three stages in the Ruka Mini-Tour, Swirbul finished a career-best 18th and was the second-best American behind only Brennan, who finished 17th. More races were scheduled for this weekend in Ruka.
Regardless of those results, Swirbul’s greatest battles will likely come between races as she attempts to navigate through life, much like those not on the U.S. ski team. And her Instagram post was the start to addressing that.
“There are so many factors right now where people don’t have their typical outlets, because we are all isolated in a way and I think it’s important to look out for each other,” Swirbul said. “I just didn’t feel I was in a place to spread positive energy. Social media is not the full truth a lot of the times, which I’m sure we all know at this point. But I think I’ve been wanting to post something about this for a long time and now I finally found the courage to do it.”
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