Hailey Swirbul’s dream becomes reality with nomination to US cross-country ski team | PostIndependent.com

Hailey Swirbul’s dream becomes reality with nomination to US cross-country ski team

Austin Colbert
The Aspen Times

Hailey Swirbul was the only one holding the "Four Musketeers" back. But now, as the country's "most decorated junior skier of all time," she might be the one to lead the four friends down the same path recently paved by the likes of Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall.

"We've actually had a group text for the past five or six years called the 'Four Musketeers' and it's been each of our individual dreams to make the U.S. Ski Team and really try to make it in skiing and being on this journey together makes it so much more special," Swirbul said Thursday from Oregon. "I never thought it would actually happen. It seems surreal. I've been the last straw and I'm so glad to be able to piece it together. We are all reunited."

Swirbul, a 2016 Basalt High School graduate, was officially nominated for the U.S. cross-country ski team last month, becoming one of only eight women to represent the red, white and blue in the sport for the 2018-19 season. This is her first time being named to the national team.

The 19-year-old joins close friends and "Musketeers" Hannah Halvorsen, Julia Kern and Katharine Ogden on the D team. This will be the third season each on the U.S. Ski Team for the trio. The women's A team is made of Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent and Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins. Randall, who won gold in the team sprint with Diggins at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang — a first-ever medal for the U.S. women on that stage — retired after the 2017-18 season.

This opened a spot for Swirbul, who has spent the past two years studying at and competing for the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"I've been chasing this dream for as long as I can remember, since I started skiing back in fifth grade, and it feels like a dream come true," the former Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athlete said. "There are so many young women and men in the country that are vying for these spots and I think each of us owe it to them to give our best and see where we can get with the sport. So I feel lucky."

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'I'm pretty spoiled right now'

Swirbul spent the past two weeks at her first official training camp with the U.S. Ski Team at Mount Bachelor near Bend, Oregon. During the camp, the local Bend community put together a fundraiser for the team and it was there that head cross-country ski coach Chris Grover introduced Swirbul in a way that would make anyone take notice.

"He was giving a one-liner for each of the athletes, and when he came to Hailey, he commented that Hailey Swirbul is now officially the most decorated junior cross-country skier in American history," U.S. development coach Bryan Fish said. "It took her off guard, too, which is much to our appreciation because she is a hard worker, generous, humble and approachable athlete. It's really great as a coach to be able to work with her."

Swirbul's nomination to the national team was an easy decision for the coaches. The United States only has five medals from junior worlds in its history, and all of these were earned in the past two winters. Of those five, Swirbul has been directly involved with three of them.

Two years ago, the "Four Musketeers" — Swirbul, Halvorsen, Kern and Ogden — won a bronze medal in a team relay at the 2017 USANA FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah. It was historic as it was the first medal for a U.S. relay team at junior worlds, men or women.

Then, this past winter at the 2018 junior world championships in Goms, Switzerland, Swirbul won silver in the women's 5-kilometer individual classic and bronze in the women's skiathlon to make her the most decorated junior cross-country skier in American history.

While the official nomination to the national team wouldn't come for another three-plus months, her results at junior worlds effectively secured her spot.

"It didn't come as a shock to me, but it didn't feel real until I actually was named," Swirbul said. "It's been so awesome. I love this group of people and the dynamic. Everyone is really supportive. The coaches are amazing. Everything has been good. We had a chef from the Center of Excellence in Park City come and join us (in Oregon) for the week, so I'm pretty spoiled right now."

'It feels natural'

Swirbul is no stranger to training with the U.S. team, at least at some level. Fish, who has been in his role with the national team since 2010, right after the Vancouver Olympics, has watched Swirbul come up through the junior ranks the past six or seven years.

She started coming to the national U16 camps and since has been part of almost every notable training camp the U.S. has put on for the junior athletes. Now she is training alongside the likes of Minnesota's Diggins, 26, who has become the face of American cross-country skiing in recent years.

"Honestly, it feels natural. It's not a big deal," Swirbul said of now being teammates with Diggins. "All these ladies on the team are so welcoming and they've taken me into their wings right away and I feel really comfortable with them and they have a lot to teach the younger girls and I. So I'm super excited to be able to learn from them."

The historic gold medal won by Diggins and Randall in South Korea has created a new standard for what U.S. cross-country skiers can do. Prior to this past winter, the only American cross-country skier to have ever won an Olympic medal was Bill Koch, who earned silver in 1976.

"Jessie actually just told my development team teammates and I that we are all way ahead of where she was at our age," Swirbul said. "We are all really excited about it and see her as kind of paving the way and making it known that things are possible that we never thought were possible in the past few years."

'keep an eye on her'

Swirbul will continue to take classes through the University of Alaska Anchorage this winter as she works toward a degree in civil engineering, although she plans to compete for neighboring Alaska Pacific University instead.

The APU Nordic Ski Center has one of the strongest clubs in the country and includes both Halvorsen and Bjornsen on the roster. Randall, who grew up in Anchorage, also has long competed with the club.

Swirbul's competition slate for 2018-19 includes U.S. senior nationals in January and, hopefully, February's U23 world championships in Finland. Her top goal would be to compete in a World Cup race later in the season.

"She is someone you guys should be really proud of moving forward. And keep an eye on her, because you haven't seen the last of her," Fish said of Swirbul. "She is just starting to express that talent. Talent is cultivated and developed through hard work, and she has been putting in a lot of time and she is starting to earn those stripes."

acolbert@aspentimes.com