Before the season started, Hailey Swirbul hoped her journey would go well enough that she could make her first World Cup start at the finals in Quebec. Well, that isn’t going to be the case, as more than two months before the Canadian finale the first-year U.S. Ski Team athlete will make her debut on the sport’s biggest stage this weekend in Dresden, Germany.
“I know I’ve got loftier goals, and this is going to be the next step to get there,” Swirbul said earlier this season of getting her first World Cup start.
A 2016 Basalt High School graduate and longtime Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athlete, Swirbul will become one of two athletes from the Roaring Fork Valley currently competing on the World Cup in cross-country skiing, the other being Aspen native and three-time Olympian Simi Hamilton. Swirbul’s brother is pro cyclist Keegan Swirbul.
Hailey Swirbul, now 20, was nominated for the national team back in the spring after what was a historic season. In its history, the U.S. has only won five medals from world juniors, and all of these have come in the past two winters. Of those five, Swirbul has been directly involved with three of them, making her the most decorated junior cross-country skier in American history.
Her success led to her nomination to the U.S. team, which includes only seven other women. Four, including Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins, make up the A team, while Swirbul is among the four on the D team.
“This past season was a breakthrough for me, and it’s been a really natural transition,” Swirbul said of being on the U.S. Ski Team. “I’ve grown up with some of the ladies on the D team and I’m on a team in Alaska with some of the ladies on the A team, so it’s been really comfortable for me to get to know them. But also really important to be able to learn from those older girls.”
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Swirbul’s season started in early December in West Yellowstone, where she had a couple of top-10 finishes in the annual U.S. Super Tour races. She then had two more top-10 finishes, including a fourth-place finish in a 10-kilometer classic race, at a Nor-Am Cup event in British Columbia.
After taking second in a smaller FIS race in Alaska — where she competes for the club team at Alaska Pacific University — she headed to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont this past week for the U.S. National Championships.
She had a strong showing at nationals, taking fourth in a 20k race. She also had a sixth-place finish in a classic sprint.
“Skiing out of a tiring but rewarding week at US Nationals,” Swirbul recently posted on her Instagram account. “Off to Dresden to try my hand at the big leagues!!”
The Dresden World Cup races this weekend include an individual sprint on Saturday and a team sprint on Sunday. Both the men and women are competing, with Hamilton expected to be among the athletes, as well.
“I’ve got a couple of years to develop still, before I’ll be expected to be winning World Cups, which would be amazing,” Swirbul had said, noting that many endurance athletes really don’t peak until later in their 20s. “It’s definitely been a change in training (this season). It’s much higher quality training and more intensity. I think it will really benefit my fitness this year and I think I’ve improved quite a bit, so I hope I can stay on an upward track this season.”
Along with any more surprising World Cup starts, Swirbul’s other big event this season is expected to be the U23 World Championships, held Jan. 20-26 in Lahti, Finland. Bigger picture, she said her long-term aim is certainly on the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.
She believes making the next Olympics is within her wheelhouse, and getting to occasionally train and compete alongside athletes like Diggins has changed her outlook. Diggins, alongside teammate Kikkan Randall, won the country’s first Olympic gold in cross-country skiing last winter in South Korea.
“She’s a normal girl, which is really awesome to see. She is not doing anything crazy,” Swirbul said of Diggins. “They really paved the way for athletes like myself, especially females, and I’m so lucky to have them to look up to and ski with.”