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Conquering Hero: Hailey Swirbul takes big steps toward catching world’s skiing elite

Hailey Swirbul on Dec. 27, 2019, in Aspen. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)

There might be part of Hailey Swirbul that is finally beginning to believe she belongs. The 22-year-old cross-country skier is coming off quite a stretch with the U.S. ski team, one that includes her first career World Cup podium and a successful go in the notorious Tour de Ski.

Both are signs the Basalt High School graduate and former Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club athlete has taken that step up to the world’s elite.

“I’ve kind of proved to myself that I can do that,” Swirbul said of being able to hang with the sport’s top athletes. “The more time I spend in Europe on the World Cup and the more time I spend around those top girls the less intimidating it becomes for me. I think that’s a huge factor.”

CONQUERING THE PODIUM

Back home for a couple of weeks before returning to Europe for the conclusion of the season, Swirbul was able to reflect on the past month and what it’s meant for her career. The first major step was taken Dec. 13 when Swirbul, a first-year member of the national A team, finished third in a 10-kilometer freestyle in Davos, Switzerland.

Even with a smaller-than-usual field, the race was a first career World Cup podium for Swirbul, made more special by the fact that teammate Rosie Brennan won for the second time in as many days, the first two World Cup victories of the 32-year-old Olympian’s career.

“That was definitely pretty special and it was cool to have Rosie win that and be able to see that’s the person I’ve been training with all summer and she’s right there and she’s the best in the world on this day,” Swirbul said. “It’s a little bittersweet to me because it wasn’t the full field, but that’s always an easy mentality to fall into … I’m trying to work on that and appreciate it for what it was and take some confidence knowing I can hang with some of those top girls now, which is cool.”

CONQUERING THE TOUR

From Davos, Swirbul joined the Americans at the Tour de Ski. The Tour de France-style stage race was created in 2006 and featured eight races over 10 days and has become one of the most grueling events on the cross-country calendar. Even finishing the race is seen as an accomplishment.

For Swirbul, this year’s Tour de Ski was her first and she entered the first stage — the first three stages were held in Val Müstair, Switzerland, before crossing into Italy — with a lot of trepidation.

“I’d heard a lot of horror stories going into it,” she said. “I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea if I would be bad at this many races or great or whatever. After the first couple of days I was, ‘I’m actually in this, I’m doing OK.’ So I set a goal to try and get a top 20 by the end and I barely pulled that off. That was pretty cool to be able to achieve that for myself. I’m just happy I got to try and see what it’s like and learn for the future.”

Swirbul called the Jan. 3 third stage “probably one of the best races of my life” and paved the way for an overall finished of 18th in the Tour de Ski, third best among the U.S. women. The cherries on top included Brennan’s sixth-place overall finish and of course Jessie Diggins, the 2018 Olympic gold medalist, who finished first to become the first North American to win the race in its 15-year history.

“It’s cool to be part of a team that is that strong and that powerful. I definitely can recognize that and see it that way,” Swirbul said. “It was pretty inspiring to see Rosie and Jessie just dominate, honestly, especially for the couple of days there in the middle. It’s cool because those gals, they are not unattainable. They are amazing skiers, but I can see that level, I can see how they got there.”

CONQUERING HISTORY

These results have the U.S. women performing at a level they never have on the World Cup. Until Diggins and the now-retired Kikkan Randall combined to win gold in 2018, the only other Olympic medal by an American, man or woman, in cross-country skiing had been Bill Koch’s silver in 1976.

Hailey Swirbul competes in a past season. Courtesy photo.

For the most part, the U.S. has hardly been more than a blip on the sport’s radar going back decades. But Diggins, Brennan and now Swirbul are among those looking to change the narrative.

“The more times you can do that and practice that and be around those really strong athletes, it makes it feel more attainable,” Swirbul said.

Entering the weekend, Diggins sits first in the overall World Cup standings, with her best career overall finish having been second during the 2018 season when she came up just shy of the globe to Norway’s Heidi Weng.

Brennan is currently third in the overall and first in the distance standings, while Swirbul is third among American women sitting in 20th in the overall standings (17th in distance, 21st in sprint). Sophie Caldwell Hamilton — the wife of Aspen’s own Simi Hamilton, a member of the men’s A team — is ranked 26th in the overall.

CONQUERING THE WORLD

Next up for Swirbul is the U23 World Championship, scheduled for Feb. 8-14 in Vuokatti, Finland. This will be the final year she’s able to compete in the event and is eyeing a strong farewell. She’s raced at U23 the past two years, her best finish being fifth as part of a relay last winter in Germany.

“I definitely have personal goals for myself that I’d love to achieve,” Swirbul said. “I’d really love to be on the podium there. But I don’t feel a ton of external pressure.”

After U23 worlds, Swirbul will regroup with the rest of her team at the 2021 World Championships that begin Feb. 22 in Oberstdorf, Germany. This will be her first time representing the U.S. at worlds, which is held every two years and along with the Olympics is the sport’s greatest standalone competition.

Swirbul doesn’t yet know if she’ll get any starts at worlds, but she looks forward to playing whatever part she can get.

“Whether I’m able to help out by actually racing on that day or not, I think our team has a really good shot at a relay medal. That would be really cool to be part of, whether I’m on the cheer squad or the start line,” she said. “This has been a really important year for me to remember to take a deep breath and realize it’s just another race. Any of these races, it’s just another start line and I know that if I can do what I know how to do and just go hard, it will usually be a decent effort.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

‘I just felt alive’: Mikaela Shiffrin gets her first slalom victory in more than a year

United States' Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates after winning an alpine ski, women's World Cup slalom in Flachau, Austria, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Giovanni Auletta)

FLACHAU, Austria — Not known for exuberant victory celebrations, Mikaela Shiffrin let out a loud scream this time after crossing the finish line.

Shiffrin’s victory in a night slalom Tuesday was unlike most of her previous 67 World Cup wins.

In the last slalom before next month’s world championships, Shiffrin ended a year-long victory drought in her strongest discipline and earned her 100th World Cup podium.

“I felt, like, inspired, I just felt alive. I was pushing. It’s hard to explain. I wish I could explain,” said the American, who was away from the circuit for much of 2020 because of the death of her father and a back injury.

Shiffrin is the 2014 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion but last triumphed in slalom in December 2019.

On Tuesday, she held on to her opening-run lead and beat Katharina Liensberger by 0.19 seconds following a near-flawless final run, denying the Austrian her maiden career win, and the Austrian team a first slalom win since November 2014.

Liensberger is the only skier to finish in the top three of all five slaloms so far this season.

“So much energy has been building up, it all, like, went out on that run,” said Shiffrin. “What can I say? That’s cool.”

After dominating the circuit for three straight seasons, Shiffrin lost her overall title to Federica Brignone last year.

The American has been gradually working her way back after her 10-month break. She won her first race since her return at a giant slalom in France in December before adding the second on Tuesday.

“All of the pieces that go into race day came together tonight. It’s amazing, but it doesn’t mean it’s fixed yet,” she said. “Tonight was really, really good.”

The result made Shiffrin the eighth skier in the 54-year-long history of the World Cup to reach 100 podium finishes.

On the women’s side, only Lindsey Vonn (137), Annemarie Moser-Proell (114), Renate Goetschl (110) and Vreni Schneider (101) have more top-three finishes than Shiffrin.

“I definitely wasn’t thinking about records today,” Shiffrin said. “I just wanted to ski well. This slope kind of tripped me up the last couple of years and I just wanted to ski, like, I don’t know, strong and inspired. It’s really, really fun tonight.”

Wendy Holdener was 0.43 behind in third, extending her record to 25 podiums without winning a race in the slalom discipline.

Overall World Cup leader Petra Vlhova, who won three of the previous four slaloms this season, placed fourth.

Michelle Gisin in fifth was 1.52 off the lead. Two weeks ago, Gisin won in another Austrian resort, Semmering, to become the first skier other the Shiffrin or Vlhova to win a World Cup slalom in 29 races since January 2017.

Shiffrin also led the slalom in Semmering after the first run before dropping to third.

“When you’re leading in the first run, and in the second run, you’re standing at the top, the wait is forever,” Shiffrin said. “In Semmering I felt that, and I was like: ‘I can’t do it.’ Today, I felt that, and every second I was thinking: ‘Let me go, let me go, let me go!’ Like, I wanted to go now. That was very exciting.”

Shiffrin has finished on the podium here all eight times she competed in the floodlit race since 2013, including four wins.

She has won a record 44 World Cup slaloms and 68 races overall, putting her in outright third place on the all-time winners list, one ahead of Marcel Hirscher.

Only Ingemar Stenmark (86) and Vonn (82) have more wins.

Shiffrin led a strong showing by the U.S. ski team, with Paula Moltzan in ninth earning her first top-10 result in slalom.

A.J. Hurt finished 29th for her career best in the discipline. Hurt had not scored World Cup points before this season but now has top-30 finishes in four different events.

Camille Rast of Switzerland, a late starter with bib No. 57 who had not qualified for a second run before, was 14th after the opening run and finished the race in sixth.

The women’s World Cup continues with two giant slaloms in Kranjska Gora this weekend, after the races were moved from another Slovenian resort, Maribor, because of a lack of snow.

United States' Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates in the finish area after winning an alpine ski, women's World Cup slalom in Flachau, Austria, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Giovanni Auletta)
United States' Mikaela Shiffrin, center, winner of an alpine ski, women's World Cup slalom, celebrates on the podium with second placed Austria's Katharina Liensberger, left, and third placed Switzerland's Wendy Holdener, in Flachau, Austria, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Giovanni Auletta)

Shiffrin finishes fourth, just missing 100th World Cup podium in Zagreb night slalom; Vlhova reclaims crown

On a foggy night in Zagreb on Sunday, days after a 6.4-magnitude earthquake hit central Croatia, Mikaela Shiffrin sat in first place of the World Cup slalom race after two runs with three racers to go. She would go on to finish fourth, 0.27 seconds behind Petra Vlhova.

Vlhova, who won the race in Zagreb last year, continues her slalom streak and was crowned Snow Queen after the race — a trophy presented annually at this World Cup event. Swiss skier Michelle Gisin finished second, and Austrian Katharina Liensberger finished third.

Shiffrin, considered by many to be one of the greatest slalom skiers of all time, continues her search for her 100th career World Cup podium and sole possession of third place on the all-time World Cup wins list, currently tied at 67 wins with Marcel Hirscher and trailing only Ingemar Stenmark (86) and Lindsey Vonn (82).

The U.S. Ski Team saw six Americans start the slalom on Sunday in Zagreb with Shiffrin, Nina O’Brien (24th), Paula Moltzan (27th) and (Katie Hensien 33rd) making the turn to the second run. For Hensien, the points earned are her first on the World Cup circuit. American veteran Resi Sitegler did not make the turn, but after coming down the historic track for the 10th time in her career, she crossed the finish and kissed the ground showing her love for Zagreb.

For the women’s U.S. Ski Team, it was the first time since December of 2007 that four teammembers qualified for the second run of a slalom, a promising sign for the growing team led by Shiffrin.

After the first run on Sunday, Shiffrin was sitting in fourth place 0.04 seconds behind Vlhova. The winningest World Cup slalom skier of all time, Shiffrin continues her success in the discipline but is still seeking her first win in about a year amongst stiff competition. Vlhova, now with 11 World Cup slalom wins and two in Zagreb, remains atop the slalom season standings, as well as the overall. Shiffrin is also looking up at Gisin in the slalom standings, who has podiumed in every discipline this season except giant slalom (she has a fourth-place finish in that discipline), and Liesenberger.

Defending overall champion Federica Brignone did not race to focus on upcoming speed events.

Skiers took to a course that featured a weakend surface thanks to heavy rain just outside of Croatia’s capital. Course workers added salt to harden the top layer — but also created bumpy conditions. Croatian great Ivica Kostelic lost his balance during a pre-race camera run and fell. Vlhova, the last racer to go in the second run, had a few miscues on the deteriorating course.

“During my run, I thought, ‘OK, the race is done.’ But I found something inside, I pushed more and more and more until the finish,” she said after the race. “It’s amazing and a really emotional victory.”

Race organizers said they would donate 10% of prize money to a relief fund for people affected by the recent earthquake in Croatia. The Croatian ski federation matched the donation, bringing the total amount raised to $60,000.