Basalt’s Swirbul reflects on historic Nordic podium at junior worlds

Hailey Swirbul

The racing was easy. The waiting and watching was agonizing.

“I finish my leg and I went immediately back on course to watch my teammates,” Hailey Swirbul said. “I was more nervous watching them than I got before my race. I was also so excited throughout that time, because I think I was in a cool position being the first one out that I had the time to watch the rest of the relay come together.”

Swirbul, a 2016 Basalt High School graduate and current freshman on the University of Alaska-Anchorage Nordic ski team, was the lead leg of the four-person relay Feb. 5 at the 2017 USANA FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships at Soldier Hollow, Utah. She finished her 3.3-kilometer trek, and then watched as her three U.S. teammates set out to complete the historic race.

The foursome — Swirbul, Julia Kern, Hannah Halvorsen and Katharine Ogden — took bronze in the relay, won by Russia. It was historic as it was the first medal for a U.S. relay team at junior worlds, men or women. The previous best finish was fourth.

“Personally, it just feels absolutely amazing to be a part of that. It has been a goal of ours — the four of us on the relay team have been shooting for a relay podium for the last two years,” Swirbul said in a phone interview from Anchorage. “It not only motivates the four of us that won it, but also the rest of the country, the ski country. I’ve received a lot of messages from friends and fellow racers that said how inspired they are and how much hope it gives them.”

Swirbul, an Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club alumna, was twice the junior national distance champion, and also was an accomplished cross-country runner at BHS, taking second at state in 2014. Her brother, Keegan, is a professional cyclist.

Her three U.S. teammates, who she calls close friends, came together at a training camp two summers ago and junior worlds had been on their radar ever since. Not only was the U.S. finishing on the podium historic, but it was the first time the country had hosted the event since Lake Placid did in 1986.

“That’s what made it such a prominent goal for us is being able to be on our home turf and prove to our country we have a future in Nordic skiing,” Swirbul said. “Those trails at Soldier Hollow in Utah, I’ve grown up racing on those. That’s where when I skied with Aspen Valley Ski Club we would have a race there once or even twice a year when junior nationals or senior nationals are held there. I know those trails like the back of my hand, so I felt really comfortable going into those races.”

The podium is a big boon for the U.S. Nordic skiers. With the U.S. national team skiers, led by Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins, having a strong season and the 2018 Winter Olympics only a year out, Swirbul believes the junior team’s podium also is a positive sign for cross-country skiing in the U.S., which has long struggled on the international stage.

“Every year it seems juniors are getting stronger and more competitive on an international level. I think our senior racers actually realize that, and they are incredibly supportive and encouraging,” Swirbul said. “We are just four normal girls. We don’t do anything different than they do and it’s possible to reach that level.”

Swirbul still has a few important races ahead of her this winter, next being the junior national championships at Lake Placid, New York, in early March. The NCAA ski championships take place in Jackson, New Hampshire, March 8-11.