Nordic skiing dates back around 8,000 years, but one could argue it’s taken until recently for the seldom understood sport to take off in the United States. It’s almost unparalleled when it comes to required fitness—the world’s best put in 800 to 1,000-plus hours a year of endurance and strength training. When Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall brought home America’s first Olympic medal in women’s cross-country skiing in February, the sport finally enjoyed its moment in the spotlight. The Roaring Fork Valley has its own champion in 20-year-old Hailey Swirbul, who grew up in Carbondale and was recently named to the U.S. Ski Team. Swirbul spent the last two years on the NCAA circuit, racing for the University of Alaska Anchorage while maintaining a 4.0 GPA in civil engineering. A three-time Junior World Championship medalist, Swirbul is competing on the Super Tour circuit this winter, our country’s professional circuit, which could lead to World Cup starts as early as the second half of the winter. She’s on a fast-track schedule and slowed down just enough to answer a few questions about her progress and her future.
How and why did you get into Nordic skiing?
I followed my brother, Keegan. In fifth grade, I had planned to join the AVSC [Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club] freestyle ski team as a mogul skier, but, instead, I followed my big brother’s lead. At a younger age, my parents would have to drag me to go Nordic skiing, and I didn’t understand why anyone would enjoy walking down a boring groomed trail with sticks on their feet while freezing their toes off.
What’s your specialty and why do you like it?
Distance skiing has become my specialty in the past few years. I particularly enjoy classic distance races (5K or longer) because classic skiing is an art form. Classic distance skiing takes mental and physical effort while simultaneously relaxing. When I feel myself reaching my stride in a classic race, I feel invincible!
When did you realize you had what it takes to ski at an elite level?
When I podiumed at the Junior World Ski Championships in Goms, Switzerland, last February. I’ve dreamed of being on the U.S. Ski Team since my first year skiing with AVSC. I skied hard, motivated by the opportunity to travel for races and stay in hotels with my friends. I started winning my age group, and when I was 13, I raced up an age group to qualify for Junior Nationals in the U16 division. The next two seasons, I earned two Junior National distance titles, traveled to Scandinavia to race and earned podium spots in most of my other races.
How did AVSC and the trails up- and downvalley shape you as a skier?
My coaches at AVSC played an important role in getting me to where I am today. Maria Stuber truly believed in me and pushed me to be a better skier and racer, and the other coaches made skiing fun for a young athlete. Aspen has one of the best trail systems to grow and develop as a cross-country skier, with plenty of terrain and amazing 360-degree views for motivation.
What are your ultimate goals in the sport?
I would like to be the best classic skier in the world. A coach asked, ‘What does that even mean?’ To be honest, I’m not yet sure what it means, but I’m going to give my best to get there!