BiathlonCollegiateGeneralJuniorsNewsNordic CombinedOlympicsRacingFasterSkier’s Juniors of the Year: Ben Loomis and Hailey Swirbul (Updated)

FasterSkier FasterSkierApril 9, 2018
Ben Loomis (l) and Hailey Swirbul (21) are FasterSkier’s Juniors of the Year. (Photos: Romina Eggert & JWSC2018.ch)

With the 2017/2018 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review. This set of honors goes to outstanding North American junior athletes across all nordic disciplines. 

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Ben Loomis, U.S. Nordic Combined Team

In late January, 19-year-old Ben Loomis was named to the U.S. Olympic team. That was a pretty big deal, and one he hadn’t been relying on.

“My main focus this year was on World Juniors, so to have made, and competed in, the Olympics was a dream in itself,” he wrote in an email to FasterSkier last week. “I really didn’t have any goals past having fun, taking in the experience, and doing my best.”

The men’s individual normal hill/10 k Gundersen podium at the first Day of Nordic Combined Junior World Championships in Kandersteg, Switzerland, with American Ben Loomis (r) in third, the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Pazout (c) in first, and Norway’s Einar Lurås Oftebro (l) in second. (Photo: Josh Parker)

Before he actually arrived in PyeongChang, South Korea, though, he had another trip to make: to Kandersteg, Switzerland, to compete in the thing that was his big goal, World Junior Championships.

In Kandersteg, Loomis improved on his top-ten finish from the previous season, earning bronze in the normal hill 10 k. In doing so, he became the first American to medal in nordic combined at World Juniors since Todd Lodwick won gold in 1996.

“A medal at World Juniors was definitely my goal going in, in fact, it had been a goal for the two years prior,” Loomis wrote of finally checking that box. “I knew the level I was at, and the level of the my competitors, so I was confident that a podium was well within my capabilities.”

As a developing talent on the U.S. team, Loomis is often competing at senior competitions, be it on the Continental Cup or the World Cup. In Kandersteg, he actually had the chance to measure himself against his own cohort.

“It can often be humbling to compete on World Cup as one of the younger athletes which makes junior competitions much much less stressful,” Loomis wrote. “I’ve always done pretty well against juniors my same age so that gave me confidence going into Junior Worlds. Of course, I was very happy and at the same time relieved to have meet my goal. This result was huge because it not only helped myself out, but it opened up another World Cup spot which is a help for the whole team. This certainly made everyone happy.”

In the normal hill 5 k, he was just one spot off the podium in fourth.

When asked to peg his favorite memory from the season, though, the medal wasn’t it. Neither was the Olympics, where his top finish was 40th and he helped the U.S. relay team to 10th place.

“I have to say Olympic Trials in Park City was one of the most memorable days this season,” Loomis wrote. “It’s rare to compete at home, and to have the enthusiasm of large crowd made the day exciting. To top things off, I was happy to finish on the podium behind veteran Bryan Fletcher and my older brother, Adam.”

Hailey Swirbul, University of Alaska Anchorage

The same day that Loomis won his bronze medal, Hailey Swirbul was taking her own step onto the podium about 75 kilometers away in Ulrichen, Switzerland, where the cross-country portion of World Junior Championships was being held.

“This season I had wanted to focus on NCAA races more than I had the previous year, but once the season got under way it was difficult to forget about the temptation of doing well at World Juniors,” the University of Alaska Anchorage sophomore wrote in an email this week. “I tried to take on each of those goals individually as they approached and focus solely on the race that I needed to at the moment.”

Last season, Katharine Ogden won bronze in the World Juniors skiathlon, and she and Swirbul teamed up with Julia Kern and Hannah Halvorsen to earn bronze in the relay, too.

The women’s 5 k classic podium at 2018 Junior World Championships in Goms, Switzerland, with American Hailey Swirbul (r) in second, Russia’s Polina Nekrasova (c) in first, and Finland’s Anita Korva (l) in third. (Photo: JWSC2018.ch)

In the 5 k classic in Ulrichen, Swirbul did one better than Ogden’s mark and claimed silver, just 14.4 seconds behind gold medal winner Polina Nekrasova of Russia.

“I think the moment I’ll remember (albeit a long moment), was the time from when I crossed the finish line in the 5 k individual start to when I learned I would actually receive a medal,” Swirbul wrote this week, when asked what the most memorable moment of her season was. “Interval start races are not instant gratification like a mass start is… you’ve got to wait out the whole field to see if you actually did well. I was seeded about 20th from the last starter, so I had plenty of waiting in anticipation! I will always remember the people who were there with me through that and told me they think I’ve done it; and the excitement from the entire team about my individual success. It’s amazing to be from a country where every teammate celebrates an individual success almost as their own.”

It was the best World Juniors finish ever for an American.

“The result hasn’t hit me yet,” Swirbul wrote in an email after the race back in January. “It was beyond what I expected, so my brain is still catching up to the reality! I’ve been dreaming of racing how I know I could for the past 3 years or so, and this season has finally been my chance to break through. I’m so fortunate that things aligned for me on the day that really counted. I couldn’t have done it without Bryan Fish’s unwavering belief in us athletes, and my mom and dad’s support all these years, of course.”

But she was far from finished. In the 10 k skiathlon, Swirbul picked up a bronze to go with her silver.

“After my silver medal I believed in myself more than before,” she wrote at the time. “However, I managed to stay calm and not put high expectations on myself for the skiathlon which allowed me to race my best. I was hoping to ski smart and relaxed and not be afraid to make it hurt! In a mass start that is really all I can control.”

Swirbul helped the U.S. junior women to eighth place in the relay. Then she returned to the U.S., where the college season was still going strong.

“Being on the western circuit, I realized that coming back to ‘domestic’ racing is hardly domestic at all!” Swirbul wrote this week. “Our circuit has helped me prepared for international races, because many of our athletes are international. I have learned so much from them in each race. Otherwise, it was difficult to switch back to full on school mode, but the skiing transition was fun!”

She rallied for the seawolves, and placed third in the 5 k classic and second in the 15 k skate mass start at NCAA Championships, the second American in both races – which were swept by Ogden (University of Colorado’s Anne Siri Lervik, from Norway, was second in the 5 k classic).

“That was one of the most exciting races that I’ve ever watched,” UAA head Nordic coach Andrew Kastning said in a press release after the NCAA 15 k. “Hailey skied as good as she possibly could have, and was very smart.”

Honorable Mentions: Ben Ogden (Stratton Mountain School) and Gus Schumacher (Alaska Winter Stars)

The best individual result on the men’s side at World Juniors, for the Americans, came from Ben Ogden. The then-17-year-old (he’s since turned 18) finished seventh in the 10 k classic, 10.9 seconds off the podium.

“I went into World Juniors without much in the way of expectations,” Ogden wrote in an email this week. “My official goal was a top 20, but I had no idea of the achievability of that considering this was my first World Juniors. I knew that classic 10 k’s are a relatively strong point for me, so I was excited to see where I stacked up. Finishing the individual start race race as the temporary leader, and ending up seventh overall was incredibly exciting. This race was mind-blowing for me and showed that anything is possible. This elevated my expectations and hopes for the races to come, which was cool.”

Along with teammate Gus Schumacher, who finished 17th in the 10 k, Ogden gave the U.S. team a lot of hope for the future.

The U.S. men’s silver-medal relay at 2018 Junior World Championships in Goms, Switzerland, with (from left to right) Luke Jager, Hunter Wonders, Gus Schumacher, and Ben Ogden. (Photo: Julia Kern)

“It’s really exciting when you look at our day in general,” U.S. Ski and Snowboard development coach Bryan Fish noted the day of the classic race. “We had two young boys with 2000 birth years; there was only three boys in the top 40 that had a 2000 year of birth and we had two. … That’s just really exciting for U.S. skiing in general, that we have athletes showing up not just to participate, but to really perform.”

That promise came due a few days later when, along with Hunter Wonders and Luke Jager, the duo raced to a silver medal in the junior men’s relay, an unprecedented result and going one better than the women’s relay had the year before.

“If I had a dime for every time an announcer, coach, athlete, or anyone else remotely involved in cross-country skiing has called me ‘the younger brother of the infamous Katharine Ogden’ I would be a very rich younger brother,” Ogden wrote this week. “After years of this, it become clear that the only way to shirk this nickname is to rival or even beat her skiing performances… So naturally, I went into the relay at World Juniors hoping to help create the circumstances under which Katharine may just once be referred to as Ben Ogden’s older sister. I know this goal seemed incredibly lofty but after a successful week, it was time to dream big. I am pleased to say that along side the iconic Alaskan trio, Hunter Wonders, Juke Jager and of course Gus Schumacher, we were able to pull off the ultimate one-up on Katharine and her friends from the year prior. Each of my teammates had their own motivations for the race that allowed them to preform in such a heroic fashion, and I can only imagine that the overall performance also exceeded their wildest dreams.”

The team was never far out, with Jager leading things out in sixth (+14.0), Ogden bringing the team to fourth (+22.8) and Wonders holding that position (+29.0). But Schumacher as the anchor skier did hero’s work and made up the time to pass the French and Russian teams, and crossed the line just 2.2 seconds behind Norway to secure silver. It was a team effort that landed the Americans just 3.3 seconds clear of third place.

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“Experiencing the podium here has been so cool,” Schumacher wrote at the time. “I thought it was possible, but actually getting it feels amazing. This whole trip has been really cool even without this success, it’s such an amazing place and the team is tight. I think individually I anticipated results maybe a little better, but this seems about right, and as a team I think we all surprised ourselves. Together we can make some big waves.”

The juniors have also had success against the senior field. Schumacher finished sixth in the 15 k skate at U.S. Nationals and eighth in the skate sprint. And Ogden, for example, was ninth in the 15 k skate at U.S. Nationals, and qualified fourth in the classic sprint before finishing 12th on the day.

“I think that one of my strongest races of the season was the individual skate 15 k at U.S. Nationals in Anchorage,” Ogden, who is headed for the University of Vermont next year, wrote in an email this week. “I was excited to place in the top 10 overall, especially in a skate race, which has been is my weaker technique in the past.”

Honorable Mention: Chloe Levins, US Biathlon 

Despite being just a junior in the biathlon world, Middlebury College student Chloe Levins elbowed her way in to the U.S. Olympic Trials process. She excelled at trials races in Minnesota to earn a spot on the team’s short list for PyeongChang, before ultimately falling just short in the final trial competitions, some IBU Cup races in Europe.

Chloe Levins (third from r) with the U.S. team staff (from l to r) wax tech Travis Voyer, coach Algis Shalna, assistant coach Danika Frisbie, wax tech Max Bergmann, wax tech Mattias Halquist, and coach Erik Lewish, after Levins placed sixth in the junior women’s 12.5 k individual at IBU Junior World Championships in Otepää, Estonia. (Photo: Erik Lewish)

But after that, Levins bounced back to provide remarkably strong and consistent results at World Junior Championships in Otepää, Estonia. Levins finished sixth in the 12.5 k individual, seventh in the 7.5 k sprint, and then sixth again in the 10 k pursuit. She still has one more season of junior eligibility, too.

“In pursuit races in the past, I’ve come from behind,” Levins, who placed fourth in last year’s Youth Worlds pursuit, wrote in an email to FasterSkier at the end of World Juniors. “Today, it was a new learning experience for me to be in the mix for the duration of the race. My plan was simple from the start: enjoy being in the mix and trust your preparation. I found the zone today, which is what you dream about. I don’t remember much about the last stage. All I know for sure is that I went for it today…and I have no regrets.”

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