Nordic Junior World Championships a ‘surreal’ experience for Basalt’s Swirbul
Hailey Swirbul returned to class at the University of Alaska Anchorage earlier this week, where she was attempting to find some normalcy before she heads back out on the competition circuit with the Seawolves.
But in the back of the sophomore’s mind have been all the highs she experienced over the past week while competing in the FIS Nordic Junior World Championships in Goms, Switzerland.
“It feels surreal,” the 2016 Basalt High School graduate said Monday from Anchorage. “I definitely was not expecting to come out with two more medals this week. I was hoping to come out with one from the relay. I thought our team had a good chance, but it ended up being the individual medals that I walked away with.”
Swirbul, 19, stole the show for the American cross-country skiers in Switzerland, winning two individual medals to make history. Combined with a relay bronze she won last winter in Soldier Hollow, Utah, her three Junior Worlds medals are the most for a U.S. Nordic skier in the event’s history, male or female.
Swirbul grew up competing with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, and she is a two-time junior distance national champion. Reaching the summits she did last week in Goms long have been a realistic goal, but she had to fight through a couple of average seasons to get there.
“It just takes persistence and believing in the process and she certainly exemplified that,” said August Teague, the Nordic program director for the AVSC who also trained with Swirbul at his former club in Truckee, California. “This was the year where Hailey sort of took her step back up. I think it probably lit the fire for her a little bit in the last year, seeing those other girls that she had been teammates on international trips and been competitive with over the years have their moment to shine and step up.”
Among Swirbul’s teammates at Junior Worlds was Truckee native Hannah Halvorsen, a member of the development team for U.S. Ski and Snowboard. Swirbul’s been part of this same group of up-and-coming U.S. Nordic athletes who are knocking on the door of the World Cup circuit, but not until this season has Swirbul taken that next step to join them.
“The past three years I’ve been consistently tired, and this was the first breakthrough year for me,” Swirbul said. “The past three years have been a little bit of a plateau for me in terms of my results and my feelings about racing. I think this year I’m finally back on track to where I knew I could be at this point.”
Swirbul had a strong showing at U.S. Nationals earlier in the winter and has fared well on the collegiate circuit, but her shining moment came last week in Switzerland. It started with her shocking silver medal in the Jan. 30 women’s 5-kilometer individual classic, where she fought off a sore throat and stuffy nose.
Two days later, Swirbul took bronze in a sprint finish in the women’s skiathlon for her historic third Junior Worlds medal. The relay bronze she won last year in Utah alongside teammates Halvorsen, Julia Kern and Katharine Ogden was the first for the U.S. in Junior Worlds history.
Kern and Ogden also are part of the U.S. development team this winter.
“Obviously the results speak for themselves,” Teague said of Swirbul’s three medals. “I would imagine that she would get named to the development team at the conclusion of this season. With results like that, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t.”
For Swirbul, making the U.S. Ski Team has long been a dream. Now, with three Junior Worlds medals, that could become reality.
“I proved to myself more than anyone else that I have potential to be really competitive if I choose to pursue skiing. I think it definitely motivated me to want to get there,” Swirbul said. “A few of the World Cup skiers for the U.S. reached out to me and congratulated me. They seem like such a wonderful group of people and they have such an amazing lifestyle that I think I would like to be a part of one day if I continue skiing well.”
Among those to reach out was Aspen native Simi Hamilton, who will compete in his third Winter Olympics this month. Teague believes Hamilton will have a shot at an Olympic medal, a rarity for U.S. men, in South Korea. But the real story could be Minnesota native Jessie Diggins and the American women, who have never won a medal in cross-country skiing in Olympic history.
Should the U.S. women make the podium in Korea, it would be just as meaningful to those athletes as it would be to the ones coming up behind them.
“I think most of the Nordic community would be more surprised if they didn’t win a medal than if they did,” Swirbul said. “I remember not even five years ago when getting a top 40 at World Juniors was a huge success. Now a top 20 is decent, but expected of everyone. So I think it would be the cherry on top of this whole movement to come home with an Olympic medal for those girls.”