John Stroud: Coaching a future Olympian wasn’t a feather I sought, but I’ll proudly wear that cap
What could have been a pretty big deal during my stint as a cross country running coach a few years ago turned into a much bigger deal for one area athlete who’s competing in the Beijing Winter Games.
For about five or six years I co-coached middle school cross country in Carbondale through the local after-school program, Access Roaring Fork.
Our team was unique, drawing participants from four different schools in Carbondale, but running under the Carbondale Middle School banner.
We were more about getting out and having some fun and exercise after school than prepping for serious competition.
But one of those years was extra special from a talent standpoint.
Among the runners who joined up that year was a gangly seventh grader from El Jebel by the name of Hailey Swirbul.
That’s right, the same Hailey Swirbul who’s representing the United States this month as a member of the U.S. Olympic Cross Country Ski Team.
That particular year we had a group of seventh and eighth grade girls who turned out to be natural runners but who also played other sports.
In addition to Swirbul, we had another accomplished young cross country skier by the name of Evelina Sutro, who went on to ski for a Nordic prep school in Sweden and now skis professionally with the Stratton Mountain School T2 Elite Team in Vermont.
Add to the roster a super fast hot-shot soccer player and a couple of other young athletes who didn’t know they liked running until they gave it a try, and suddenly we had a pretty good cross country team — by middle school standards, anyway.
At the time, Swirbul was already an accomplished cross country skier with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club who was looking to get some dryland conditioning in ahead of the ski season.
I knew by watching her take command and pick off any runners who got in front of her in those middle school running races that she was bound for something bigger.
The feather in our cap that season was winning the middle school girls team title at the Chris Severy Invitational in Aspen.
We talked at our end-of-season team party about the potential that group of girls might have if they stuck together and ran cross country for Basalt High School.
I envisioned multiple state cross country championships coming from that group.
Growing up and running cross country myself in Illinois, the benchmark for cross teams was York Community High School in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, which came to be known as the “Long Green Line of York” because of the way they packed so many runners at the front of all the races.
We could have had the Long Purple Line of Basalt.
It could have been great.
As fate would have it, though, that particular group of girls dispersed after middle school; some moved away, others turned their focus to different sports.
Swirbul did go on to have an accomplished side career running cross country for Basalt, including a ninth place finish at the 3A state championships her sophomore year and a runner-up showing her junior year in 2014.
But it was apparent her first love was cross country skiing, as she continued to amass top podium spots with AVSC and added to her impressive resume skiing collegiately for the University of Alaska and Alaska Pacific University and as a member of the U.S. Junior Team.
A member of the U.S. Ski Team for four years now, Swirbul has seen success on the world stage and gets her first shot at the Olympics this year.
I’m a bit of an Olympics junky, so rest assured I’ll be glued to the TV for as much of the coverage as possible for the next two-plus weeks.
And, for certain I’ll be looking in particular for that young protégé by the name of Hailey Swirbul and wonder if she might remember some bit of goofy, light-hearted advice I gave in one of those pre-race pep talks in middle school.
Probably not, because I’ve never been one for pep talks, really. Just some goofy advice that might just as easily apply to the big test or essay paper that’s due next week as the looming cross country race.
Either way, I’m happy to wear that feather in my coaching cap and say I once coached a future Olympian.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.