Swirbul, youthful U.S. cross-country skiers continue their Olympic push

Americans head to Tour de Ski next week with Games looming

Basalt’s Hailey Swirbul, right, competes during the women's 4x5km cross-country relay event at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships on March 4 in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Matthias Schrader/AP

Even Hailey Swirbul wasn’t all that good at cross-country skiing at one point in time. Sure, this was many years ago, but it goes to show the mountain she has climbed over her short career so far.

“I can remember a day, not too long ago, skiing up big Cottonwood Canyon with Hailey, where she could hardly classic ski,” said U.S. cross-country ski team head coach Matt Whitcomb, prior to the start of the season in Finland. “Then, all of a sudden, you fast forward eight years and she’s on the podium in Davos. It seems sudden because you have some veterans retire, move out of the way, and suddenly these young athletes are in the spotlight. Then they pop a race and it really seems like they came out of nowhere. But Hailey has been improving steadily year after year and had just a wonderful season last year. She’s a brilliant racer at altitude, which is really exciting for Beijing.”

Swirbul, the 23-year-old from Basalt who is a fourth-year member of the U.S. national team, finds herself as a key cog for the American women with the 2022 Winter Olympics less than two months away. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is still a few weeks away from announcing its Olympic teams, but Swirbul seems all but assured a spot among the expected eight-woman field that will represent the country in Beijing come February.

This would be Swirbul’s first time competing at the Olympics. She was given her first world championships start last winter in Oberstdorf, Germany, which included a fourth-place finish in a team relay alongside Jessie Diggins, Rosie Brennan and the since-retired Sadie Maubet Bjornsen. The 2020-21 season also included Swirbul’s breakthrough first podium, finishing third in a 10-kilometer freestyle event in Davos, Switzerland.

“I’m really looking forward to trying to live in the present moment over these couple of months, because so many things are actually out of our control when it comes to results,” Swirbul said in a preseason video call with reporters from Ruka, Finland. “We want to choose the best — and we will — to be going to Beijing with the best team of athletes no matter who those athletes are. I hope to be one of those, for sure, and it’s definitely a little bit nerve-wracking going into my first Olympic season with a lot of eyes watching our team because we’ve become such a powerhouse. I’m excited to just ride the wave the best I can and just kind of enjoy it, for all the stresses and the bright moments.”

Minnesota’s Diggins, who won Olympic gold alongside the since-retired Kikkan Randall in 2018, remains the team’s superstar. Utah’s Brennan, a veteran at 33 years old, has established herself as the team’s No. 2 after a breakthrough season. Last winter, Diggins, who is now 30, won the overall World Cup championship, a first for U.S. cross-country skiing, while Brennan finished fourth.

Swirbul finished third among American women in the overall last season, coming in 23rd place. After four stops so far this winter, those standings seem to be holding true, as Brennan (fourth) and Diggins (fifth) lead the charge, with Swirbul currently in 27th place.

“We are so lucky to have such a strong group, especially our women’s team, which I’ve been directly impacted by quite a bit,” Swirbul said of learning behind veterans like Diggins and Brennan. “They definitely paved the way for us and showed us the ropes in and out of racing while on the road. There are so many things like what to pack, what kind of foods are best to eat that you want to bring from home. We have a group chat where some of those older, more experienced women will share with us younger ones what has worked for them.”

U.S. athletes, in particular, have mostly taken a conservative approach to the start of this season. The bigger goal isn’t so much about getting World Cup points, but in building toward a strong showing at the Olympics, which start Feb. 4.

Hailey Swirbul poses on Dec. 27, 2019, in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Swirbul’s best individual result so far this season was taking sixth in a 10k freestyle on Dec. 12 back in Davos, a race that saw Diggins finish in second and Brennan in fourth. Swirbul was also part of a Dec. 5 relay along with Diggins, Brennan and Julia Kern that just missed the podium by finishing fourth in Lillehammer, Norway.

Kern, 24, and Swirbul are among this younger group of women that is helping replace many of the veterans who have retired since the 2018 Olympics, like Maubet Bjornsen, Randall and Sophie Caldwell Hamilton, wife to Aspen’s own Simi Hamilton, who also recently retired.

Diggins, who may be the face of U.S. cross-country skiing, lauded her younger teammates and the influence they have had on her.

“Sometimes there is this myth that inspiration and leadership is a one directional thing. It’s not. I’m just as inspired and fired up by these younger athletes as I imagine they might get from the older athletes,” Diggins said. “They have what it takes to go all the way. I really believe that. And they are definitely more talented than I was at their age. I see good things in the future.”

With Period 1 having ended for the Americans, the next segment gets underway with the annual Tour de Ski, which starts Tuesday in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. The tour features six stages over eight days — down two stages over past years because of the Olympics — and is one of the more unique and prestigious events of the World Cup season. Diggins won the tour’s overall title last winter.

A few notable U.S. skiers, such as Brennan and men’s team member JC Schoonmaker, have opted to skip Tour de Ski and will instead head home for training and will likely compete in the U.S. Cross Country Championships at Soldier Hollow beginning Jan. 2. However, Diggins, Swirbul and Kern are among those expected to compete at Tour de Ski next week.

Behind Diggins, Brennan was sixth and Swirbul 18th overall in last year’s Tour de Ski.

“We’ve seen Hailey put together great races everywhere,” Whitcomb said. “There’s really no limit there. I would say no magic has happened. She’s just sort of incrementally gotten a little better every year.”

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