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.”
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.
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.”