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Meet Hailey Swirbul, US most successful junior athlete on the rise
Hailey during Tour de Ski 2021 - Image by Nordic Focus

With a third rank in last seasons 10km F in Davos, Hailey Swirbul from the US Ski and Snowboard team landed her maiden World Cup podium. Following up on her success, the 23 year-old then impressively completed her first Tour de Ski - landing constant top-20 results. Among others, the young American is part of the future stars of US Ski and Snowboards Cross-Country squad. Paolo Romano from Fondoitalia.com met up with Hailey to get to know what is the driving force behind the cheerful young athlete.

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For the US Cross-Country team, last season proved to be another year of great growth, culminating in the historic conquest of the World Cup overall by its highest profile, 30 year-old Minnesota native Jessie Diggins .

In addition to the crystal globe, Jessie also brought home the first victory of the Tour de Ski for the stars and stripes team. In addition to the Cross-Country skier from Minneapolis, the US Ski and Snowboard Cross-Country team had a fantastic start of the season with 33 year-old Rosie Brennan who defended her yellow bib until the Tour de Ski.

Alongside the two established skiers, the performances of the team led by Cross-Country director Chris Grover and coaches Matt Whitcomb and Jason Cork saw a new young generation rise to a next level with Gus Schumacher and Hailey Swirbul a cut above the rest.

Hailey Swirbul (r.) on her first World Cup podium - alongside her team colleague Rosie Brennan | Image by Nordic Focus

The new generation of American Cross-Country skiers - to which we can also add other names on the launch pad such as Sophia Laukli, the talented juniors Kendall Kramer, Sydney Palmer-Leger and the 17 year-old Ava Thurston in the women's field as well as Hunter Wonders, Will Koch (son of Bill Koch ) and Alaskan Zanden Mc Mullen on the mens side - will now have the difficult task of stepping into large footprints "Made in the USA" set by Jessie Diggins, Sadie Maubet-Bjornsen, Sophie Hamilton-Caldwell and Simi Hamilton.

The US Cross-Country team sees a change in generation. By living around Europe and far away from home for most of the competitions season, the team members have to get used to a very special lifestyle in the winter months. As each individuals performance can also be affected by the team dynamics, the youngsters of the US squad will each add to the close-knit united US team.

Find here the exclusive interview by fondoitalia.com:

If Hailey Swirbul can be considered the most successful American Cross-Country skier ever at junior level, the merit is due to her brother Keegan. Keegan Swirbul, among the climbing community at home known under the nickname "Flying Swirbul”, member of the American professional Rally Cycling team and Hailey Swirbul's brother. It was him who convinced his younger sister ten years ago to start Cross-Country skiing as a winter discipline propaedeutical for keeping them in good condition before starting the spring season on two wheels. Given the great admiration that Hailey has for her brother, it was easy for her to put on Cross-Country skis and follow him along the suggestive tracks that characterize her native valley in the middle of american Centennial State.

Hailey was born 23 years ago in Grand Junction-Colorado. In kindergarten age, her family moved to little El Jebel in the panoramic valley near Colorado's alpine ski pearl, the renowned resort of Aspen.

As a child she started with alpine skiing as soon as she learned to walk, a must for those kids who live about ten kilometers from Aspen, while in summer with her brother her outdoor activities were long excursions along the valley mountain biking or climbing the local high peaks. When Hailey was ten years old Keegan motivated her to get on with Cross-Country skiing - in addition to her prictices in freestyle and moguls which she followed until the fifth grade.

However, the passion for Cross-Country skiing grew.

Hailey's former High School principal from Basalt High School, Peter Mueller give us a perfect picture of her character and her extreme commitment in those profitable years of high school in combination with school:

«Hailey was a super student here at Basalt. She is one of the few native English speaking girls who has reached the highest levels in Hispanic classes and able to converse freely with our emerging bilingual Latinos students. She loved making delicious crepes which she shared with other students and often sold in our corridors to raise money for some good causes. Hailey brought her  -can do- attitude to both her academic work and her skiing. And when she struggled some in her athletic transition between high school and college, I could see how carefully she reflected on what might need to change in order for her to feel strong again. Hailey cares deeply about sport and equally about caring for those in our community. She is a special talent and our school could not be more proud of her!»

In 2017 the American skier got the national selection to compete in her first Junior World Championships in Soldier Hollow. In 4x3,3 km girl’s Relay she was awarded with the first leg and she, together with her loyal companions, Julia Kern, Hanna Halvorsen and Katharine Ogden, leaded the stars and stripes nation to conquer an historical bronze.

After graduating from Basalt High School, Swirbul moved to Anchorage to start University at Alaska Pacific to study civil engineering where in December 2021 she is  earning her well-deserved degree. The following season in her second World Junior Championships in Goms (SUI), she got two medals, silver in 5km classic and bronze in skiathlon, making her the most medalized American Cross-Country skier in history at the age under 20.

After racing mostly on competitive American SuperTour, the rest is recent story with Hailey entering US national team, getting her first World Cup podium in Davos (SUI), spending a almost full time season at senior level and finally, competed her first World Ski Championshiops in Oberstdorf last February.

Looking back at your last season, you got first World Cup podium in Davos and stayied in Europe for almost all period of races there. Are you satisfied of your last season in top WC circuit?

“In some ways I am happy with my season and with the good results I got, even though it was a difficult season due to Covid and restrictions. It is difficult to be on the road and away from home for so long, it has been also a great challenge for me. I didn’t know what to expect from my first full-time season in World Cup, so I'm a little surprised by the good results I got in the first period of racing. Then after the Tour I had a bit of ups and downs. I was hoping to feel better during the World Championships in Oberstdorf, it was not a great week for me, but at the same time I am happy because I learned a lot there and now I take it all with me. "

You were with Jessie Diggins the day she got Crystal Globe in Engadin. How was her feeling during that historical day for you American skiers?

"It has been amazing for all of us. I don't think it was even thinkable for us as a nation to happen fifteen or ten years ago. My generation has seen the beginning of this thanks to Kikkan and Jessie, Rosie and Sadie who have achieved results that have been possible in World Cup even for an American Cross-Country skier. And now for my generation seeing these successes is an example of what we can do in future.

I also wasn't surprising that Jessie won the crystal globe, because she is such a dedicated athlete and an incredible cross-country skier. I was also very excited that day to see her dream come true, but she didn't surprise me much in the end, I knew that this historic day for the USA XC team would have come. "

You have lived and trained the whole winter season with Jessie. What are the main things you learned and possibly stolen from such an important leader in USA Cross-Country team ?

“I think Jessie bring such a positive outlook to our sport, and that we have a great opportunity to learn new things from her. She has had a great impact on me as a young athlete. She gives always everything in competition, she puts a lot of herself and her whole heart in everything she does, and she is a very competitive skier who loves to win, she inspires me a lot even when there are difficult moments to face. Jessie is always a happy person and she is also real in private life as she appears in front of the cameras or with media."

Hailey checking on Marie Helene Fossesholm after the finish line of Oberstdorf's 30km Mst | Image by NordicFocus

How difficult is living for more than five months far from home, family and friends as you american skiers are compelled to do? Last year you splitted your season in two parts to soft a bit this weight.

“Yeah, this is a very difficult aspect for every member of our USA team although we all experience it in different ways. For me it was a difficult experience to overcome, for example when you are in a hotel, you always have to follow the same routine: eat-train – compete - sleep, and it is difficult to have control of your life day after day during these periods in which are you away from home and friends. But at the same time I think we have a unique chance to bond everyone together as a team, to create a very close and united team. I really think that in this way we have created a true team culture all together, veteran and youngster. Living almost five months on the road is a great and further challenge for all of us but I think that last season we as Americans figured it out quite well throughout the whole races’ calender. However, it would be nice for us if World Cup will take more stops in North America in future. I come from Colorado and here we have even more interesting tracks than some places we usually find in Europe and the same can be found in Alaska where I train and I have often competed in our American superTour. "

 What are your program thinking of the next Olympic season?

“Next year is gonna be very interesting for me because it will be my first Olympic year, and it will be a challenge for me to figure out how to deal with pressure and the  expectations I have of myself, to compete better and show improvements compared to last season.  My plan at the moment is to stay in Europe for the first period of racing and do Tour de Ski. Then I will probably go back to the States to have some rest, recharge myself a little and then be able to prepare as best as I can for the Olympic Games in Beijing. Obviously, the goal is to get in top shape, both physically and mentally in February. "

For American newspapers, Tv network and US supporter, Olympic Games are the main event in sport. Do you feel pressure about it or are preparing yourself with a particular attention on this side?

“This will be an interesting point for me to manage. Because here for the Olympics suddenly everyone wants a piece of you. In the United States it is difficult to have sponsors during the other three years, but during the Olympic year it happens that everyone wants to work and support your activity. It is a very high-profile event here in the United States and this has also recently been seen with the Tokyo 2020 Games. In the past many people I met often said to me: «I want to see you at the Olympics or that they will definitely come on site if you are at the Olympics, ect». And this is crazy because the same people don't have the same attention to us for the World Cup races that there are every week. Most people in the US don't really care about cross-country skiing except for the Olympics. This will be a challenge for me for the pressure that will be there and it will be important for me to learn how to manage pressure on a psychological level and to maintain a good balance and to know that I am worth the same or even more than having an Olympic medal if this does not happen.”

 What are your main strenghts in cross-country and in which aspect do you feel you have to work most?

“I think my strong point is knowing how to use my lower body in the best way and to use my legs as best as I can to lead skis, especially in skating even if I love classic. Instead I need to improve in classical technique as my double poling is not sufficient enough and I need to work on improving strength in my upper body. "

Tell us a bit about the Cross-Country situation in the USA? Do you think that interest, passion and sponsor investments  in our discipline there, are growing up if compared to ten/fifteen years ago?

“Interest in cross-country ski here is growing exponentially. A lot of this is to be credited to the successes of our high profile figures such as Jessie, Sadie or Rosie who are able to inspire younger kids to make their dreams come true and that now we have these dreams to get to the top of the world possible. In the States there are more and more people who are turning their interest in our discipline and our national programs that start from elementary school are more and more efficient. What is interesting is that with Covid, cross-country skiing exploded in our country because with this pandemic situation many kids had more free time and were able to better appreciate the mere fact of doing outdoor activities. And cross-country skiing is a perfect discipline to experience this at its best. Here there are more and more people on the cross-country tracks, our sport is definitely growing a lot, and in future new American talents will arrive at the top positions at international level."

Alsong with being in US Davis Cross-Country Team you are also a student at Alaska University. How do you manage lessons, exams and trainings?

“It is not an easy thing to deal with. I will graduate next December in civil engineering after a long journey that lasted five and a half years. Before Covid it was not easy to find the right options with the teachers to best attend lessons who gave me the right instructions when I was with my team in training camps or competing in Europe. Paradoxically, when Covid arrived I was able to continue at best with online courses and exams. In all these years it has not been easy to balance school with my trainings, competitions, travels and national camps ect. and I have always put a lot of myself in all these even frenetic situations and even this summer I am also attending an internship in engineering but they are all life experiences that must be lived and challenges that are worth facing in the course of our existence. "

Unforfunately your teamates Sadie Bjorsen and Sophie Caldwell retired at the end of last season. Do you feel more pressure on you inside the team now? and are you ready to make another step up as you did last season?

"This will be an interesting point within our team with the lack of these two great female skiers. The dynamics will change as half of our older group retired in just a year, and they will leave a big hole in us as the two of them were always incredibly positive and supportive with us youngsters. At the moment I don't feel the pressure to be as great as Sadie and Sophie were, as I feel I can only give the best of what I can and not have to be on a level written on paper or have to get this or that given result. But surely we will miss them a lot in the coming seasons."

You are the most successful american skier at junior level in history. How pride are of yourself? and do you consider this just a starting point for more victories in World Cup level?

“I don't know exactly what to say. World Cup has a complete different way of competing and an incredibly high level of cross-country skiers who race in it if compared to junior competitions. It is very different to spend five months in Europe instead of the two weeks we did at a junior or youth level, and I think that all the various factors of adapting to the new senior circuit, dealing with the pressures that exist at these levels, are different. For example, many of my achievements at the junior level were a sort of surprise for me too, I didn't expect to get all those medals at the junior level, many people around me were also surprised. I think it is different when you then make a certain name for yourself internationally to keep that level too, since you then have new expectations by yourself. Many think that if you are good at a junior level then you can also be at a senior level, but this step is not so obvious and simple. I just hope I will be able to fullfill my career at the best and help the team and my nation as much as possible. This is my goal at the moment rather than just achieving a win. "

 Who do you think will win first? You Tour de Ski or your brother Keegan Tour de France?

“My brother had some physical problems at the start of this season but he has done well in Tour of Portugal recently and I am very happy for him that he is doing well now. I want to remain humble and I say he will win first as I know from an early age his dedication and all the work he has done in becoming a pro cyclist. I will have time for the Tour de Ski. (laughs)"

 
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