Coming off her first World Cup points, Hailey Swirbul continues to rise as cross-country skier
For a few brief moments, Hailey Swirbul was the star of the U.S. cross-country ski team. Sure, she was far off the standard set by American teammate Sophie Caldwell that day — in fact, she was only fifth among all U.S. women in the race — but her 30th-place finish was what stood out.
“I keep saying the most exciting part of that day was how excited my teammates were. I think they understand that they are part of that little step — or to me a big step — that I made,” Swirbul recently told The Aspen Times. “They see that, and they celebrate that, and that’s special to have the team supporting me and be that happy for me. Meanwhile, Sophie Caldwell is third on the day, and she gets a normal congratulations.”
The day was Dec. 14 at a World Cup sprint in Davos, Switzerland. Swirbul, a 2016 Basalt High School graduate and former Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athlete, was getting a rare and surprising World Cup start in only her second season with the U.S. ski team. More of a distance athlete, by no means did Swirbul believe her first World Cup points would come in a sprint.
Then again, she brought extra clothes with her that day just in case she needed them, should she get past the qualifying rounds.
“There is definitely something to be said about that,” Swirbul pondered. “I kind of threw in a change of clothes as an afterthought in case I made it. So I don’t know if I fully believed I was going to pull that off. Part of me did, obviously, because I brought a change of clothes in the end and I ended up needing them to go onto the heats.”
Swirbul started four World Cup races last winter, her first on that stage. Her best finish was 41st, the spot she finished in three of her four races. She opened the 2019-20 season on the World Cup, getting three starts in Ruka, Finland, with underwhelming results. She had been slated to compete in Lillehammer, Norway, a week later, but fell ill and had to sit out.
“The period started off a little rough for me,” Swirbul said. “I definitely got served a big slice of humble pie, and that was what I expected, so it wasn’t a huge defeated feeling.”
Then came Davos. She hadn’t planned on starting that Dec. 14 sprint, but when a few of her teammates fell ill and couldn’t compete, a spot opened and she decided to give it a go. Somehow, on a whim, she finished 30th, which is the cutoff for scoring World Cup points. Her first World Cup point was exactly that, a single point in a sprint race she wasn’t even suppose to be in.
The next day, she finished 21st in a 10-kilometer freestyle for the first distance points of her World Cup career.
“That was really, really exciting,” Swirbul said. “I was really glad I was able to make that jump and prove to myself that I can do it again after a little bit of tough World Cup races in the past I’ve had. It’s no joke over there. If you are off in one race, if you are not 100% feeling it, then you are going to be way off the back.”
Following Davos, Swirbul returned home for a while over the holidays before she competed in the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships at the Michigan Tech Nordic Skiing Center in Houghton, Michigan. Fresh off the World Cup starts, Swirbul was simply dominant in Michigan, taking home national championships in the freestyle sprint, classic sprint and 20-kilometer classic. She was fourth in the 10k freestyle.
A nice bonus, her attention will certainly be back on the international stage the remainder of this winter. She hopes for more World Cup starts, but said her main races will be at the U23 world championships held Feb. 28 to March 8 in Oberwiesenthal, Germany.
“I’m going to try and not let it add extra pressure to me for anything. Belief is different than pressure,” Swirbul said of having World Cup points on her resume now. “For me I think it took believing in myself and focusing on what I do well and my strengths instead of trying to ski like someone else. I think it’s easiest to get caught up in trying to do what other people do really well and kind of lose what you can do well yourself.”
Like the rest of her teammates, the 21-year-old Swirbul aspires to make the 2022 Winter Olympics roster. And despite being one of the most inexperienced members of the current U.S. squad, she looks to be in a good position to make that happen. Scoring her first World Cup points have certainly helped her standing, all part of the journey she’s had in finding her role on the national team.
“If anything they have made me feel like an insider. Everyone on the team has included me and brought me and helped build me up,” Swirbul said. “It feels less weird to have dinner with all these incredible Olympians and athletes, but it’s also important for me to remember and take a step back sometimes. I’m so lucky to be able to be part of it in whatever way I can. I think I’m finding my place more in the group, and they’ve been amazing.”
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