Strong internal support from team helps Swirbul navigate Olympic challenges

Cross-country skier from Basalt placed 40th in her debut event Saturday

Hailey Swirbul, second from right, competes during the women's team relay at the world championships on March 4, 2021, in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Matthias Schrader/AP

Maybe with this Olympics more than any other, mental health is a popular topic of discussion, and one that Hailey Swirbul and her teammates don’t shy away from.

Between the pandemic, the political turmoil surrounding the Beijing Games and the pressure among U.S. athletes to qualify in the first place, the cross-country skier from Basalt had a lot to overcome before being able to put on a race bib this weekend in China.

“Our team culture is really good right now, especially considering all the stresses and all the external factors,” Swirbul said last week from the U.S. cross-country ski team’s pre-Olympic camp in Italy. “We’ve done a really good job of supporting each other and looking out for each other, while also making sure our own needs are met.”

The 23-year-old Swirbul made her Olympic debut Saturday. The Associated Press reports she came in 40th in the women’s skiathlon at the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre, located about an hour from Beijing via high-speed rail. With only limited fans allowed — and none from outside of China — about the only support system Swirbul has while in the Olympic bubble will come from her own U.S. teammates.

All the athletes battled through stressful early-season World Cup races, each one essentially a mini Olympic qualifier, and the unknown surrounding COVID-19 to make the U.S. roster for the Beijing Games. Swirbul is one of eight women, to go along with six men, who will represent the red, white and blue in cross-country skiing this month in China. Of those 14 athletes, 10 are first-time Olympians.

“Dealing with that pressure is something I’m still learning to figure out, but I think I’ve learned some good strategies this season to manage that, so I’ve been able to race my best every weekend,” Swirbul said. “Our team has a good balance of expectations and being ready to give everything we have out there and also looking forward to the experience itself.”

Getting to the start line in China was half the battle. Like all the athletes, Swirbul has been tested for COVID-19 daily for more than a month now. China has a very strict zero-tolerance policy surrounding the coronavirus, and a positive test at any point during the Games could result in an extensive quarantine and most likely a missed opportunity to compete. Should anyone, whether that be athlete, coach, media or other essential worker, need to leave the tight Olympic bubble, they likely won’t be allowed back in.

For all involved, this year’s Winter Olympics are most definitely a work trip, as there won’t be much of any sightseeing to be had. Unfortunately, this has become business as usual for the World Cup athletes since the pandemic began.

Basalt’s Hailey Swirbul has her face painted prior to a race with the U.S. cross-country ski team. The team’s ability to support each other through the Olympic season is helping them in competition.
Photo courtesy of Julia Kern

“We have gotten used to it over the last two years, kind of dealing with the same protocol of being OK and comfortable with wearing masks indoors,” Swirbul said. “As a group we’ve been able to handle it pretty well and establish rules and protocols that everyone is comfortable with. Honestly, I feel like we’ve all spent so much time worrying about getting to the Games healthy that it hasn’t come up that often yet to be talking about pressure of the actual races.”

The concern around COVID-19 won’t go away as the Games get underway, but having passed all the necessary tests to get into the Olympic bubble, as Swirbul and the U.S. team now have, will certainly allow them to finally put their attention toward the competition.

Coming off the 2018 Games, when Jessie Diggins and the now-retired Kikkan Randall won the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in the sport, expectations — and therefore the pressure — are high surrounding the U.S. women’s cross-country team in Zhangjiakou.

There won’t be many fans and there won’t be friends or parents cheering them along as would have been the norm in a pre-pandemic Olympics, but the team has built something special on the inside that should help them through the next three weeks.

“That’s one thing that people don’t talk about or really consider when thinking about the Olympics. It seems like everyone considers, ‘Oh, you need to be in the best physical shape of your life,’ and people understand you have to be mentally ready to fight,” Swirbul said. “But showing up to the Games ready to fight means you have to have a little bit of a break to let your mind reset, to let it recharge, and get that energy back to fight. Our team has had a really awesome environment to allow everyone to do that in whatever way works for them. Some people need to be alone, some people need more social time, and I think our group has been really supportive of all kinds of needs.”

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