Basalt’s Hailey Swirbul encouraged by results after first year on U.S. Ski Team
From a surprising World Cup start to eating meals with the sport’s elite, Hailey Swirbul got everything she wanted and more in her first season on the U.S. Ski Team.
The 2016 Basalt High School graduate and former Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athlete hopes those experiences will now lead to even greater success down the line.
“It was a really good year of learning for me,” Swirbul said in a recent interview with The Aspen Times. “I was really excited with how my season went. I think I made more improvement from last season. It was really awesome to have a lot of new resources with the U.S. team involved and to have tons of new experiences.”
Swirbul, 20, is one of the country’s rising stars in cross-country ski racing. She turned heads a few winters ago when she became the most decorated American, male or female, in junior worlds history. She was directly involved with three of the country’s five ever medals at the top-tier junior event at the time.
This led to her first nomination to the U.S. team last spring, where she joined longtime friends Hannah Halvorsen, Julia Kern and Katharine Ogden on the development team.
Swirbul spent most of this past winter competing in domestic races here in the U.S. and Canada, but was given quite the surprise when she was tasked with competing in her first World Cup race, a Jan. 12 sprint in Dresden, Germany.
“We had come right from the states 36 hours before. It was a little bit of a short-notice, last-minute invite. So that was tough,” Swirbul said. “It was really intimidating. I won’t lie. It was really crazy to be in the same room as people like Stina Nilsson, the best in the world, and see them eating breakfast — eating the same breakfast I was and warming up the same way. Stuff like that was really eye-opening.”
Swirbul finished 41st in that race, which was won by Sweden’s Nilsson, who can be considered the best sprinter in the world at the moment. She is the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the individual sprint. For Swirbul to step on the same track as someone of that caliber was intimidating, as she said, but it was equally as motivating and encouraging.
“It was really motivating to see I’m within striking distance of earning a World Cup point,” Swirbul said. “I’m glad I got that first experience over with. It was a little bit nerve-wracking and from there I know what it’s like. I know the routine and I know how the U.S. team works in that environment now. So it was much less intimidating the second time around in Quebec.”
From the onset of the season, Swirbul had always expected to get a start in the World Cup Finals, which Canada hosted in late March. She started all three races in Quebec, taking 53rd in the sprint, 41st in the 10-kilometer classic and 41st again in the 10k freestyle pursuit.
“The Quebec races were definitely motivating,” Swirbul said, “and moving forward it’s going to be really important for me to set smaller goals to make becoming one of the better skiers in the world more attainable.”
U.S. Ski and Snowboard recently announced its nominations for next year’s cross-country ski team, with Swirbul getting tabbed for the B team with Kern and Caitlin Patterson. Halvorsen remained on the D team while the women’s A team will be made of Sadie Bjornsen, Rosie Brennan, Sophie Caldwell and Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins.
Aspen native and three-time Olympian Simi Hamilton looks to return to the U.S. team alongside Erik Bjornsen as the only two men on the A team next winter.
Swirbul, who also trains and races with the Alaska Pacific University club team in Anchorage, hopes to add even more World Cup races to her schedule next winter, not to mention a return to the U23 World Championships, which will likely be her biggest event outside of the World Cups.
Regardless of who she is representing, Swirbul plans to continue dreaming big.
“I have some big goals, so I’m going to do what I can to get there,” she said. “In a distant corner of my mind, for sure, I’m thinking about the Olympics, definitely. It’s a goal a little bit down the road. But next year I’m going to focus on under-23s again and getting more World Cup experience and just taking it one year at a time.”
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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 world champs.