Swirbul Sweeps Houghton–Karsrud Takes Men’s Sprint

Ken RothJanuary 7, 2023

HOUGHTON, MICHIGAN: Welcome to FasterSkier’s on-location coverage of the United States National Cross-Country Ski Championships from Houghton, Michigan.

This week, Houghton hosts the U.S. National Cross-Country Championships on the Michigan Technological University’s trails system. Today’s event was the freestyle sprint. Even though the race was held under the organizing umbrella of the national championships, today’s event was not a national championship race; as it is part of the US. SuperTour. U.S. Ski and Snowboard has decided to hold the freestyle sprint national championships at the spring finals in Craftsbury, Vermont, March 24th.

Many of the entrants who competed throughout the week were also at the top of the ranking lists for the U.S. SuperTour; so, even though the national title was not in the mix, a lot was on the line. Among those at top of the SuperTour leaderboard for the men were John Steel Hagenbuch, Zanden McMullen, Andreas Kirkeng, and David Norris; all of whom had already podiumed in Houghton.

Hailey Swirbul powering through a corner in the qualifying round. (Photo: FasterSkier).

The women’s SuperTour leaderboard also included the names of Houghton podium finishers; with Hailey Swirbul, Sydney Palmer-Leger, and Novie McCabe being on the list.

Luke Jager generating enough power to get airborne in a high g-force corner in Houghton. (Photo: Dr. Amy Kostrzewa)

So, despite the lack of a national championship designation, the stakes were still very high. An explanation of the SuperTour designation was provided by U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s Brian Fish. Fish told FasterSkier that several years ago the decision was made to split the U.S. National championships. He said, “The decision was made to take the last competition here, being the second sprint, and be moved as a national championship to the spring. The intent is to have an equal distribution of national championships, and it allows some of our World Cup athletes to be able to do a sprint race as a national championship.” Fish added that, “The intent is to provide a good amount of distance and sprint racing throughout the year.” Fish explained the point system designation of national championship points and SuperTour points: “The U.S. national championship races are double points to the SuperTour, so all of our national championship races are also SuperTour points.” Fish also pointed out that normally this race would be held on a Sunday but was moved to Saturday to try and get more Juniors to race.  The back-to-back race days turned out to be a significant factor with today’s sprints following yesterday’s 20 kilometer race.

Women’s freestyle sprint podium (l-r Novie McCabe, Hailey Swirbul, Lauren Jortberg.) (Photo: FasterSkier).
The Results

Regardless of what the race was designated, the competition was stiff.  On the women’s side, Hailey Swirbul (APU Nordic Ski Center) made it a clean sweep of Houghton winning the sprint by six-tenths of a second over Novie McCabe (University of Utah), who came in second. Lauren Jortberg (SMS T2) came in third.

The men’s race was won by Norwegian Kristoffer Alm Karsrud (Northern Michigan University). He beat out Luke Jager (University of Utah), by seven-tenths of a second. Tom Mancini of France (University of Utah) finished third.

Novie McCabe qualifying for the heats. She would ultimately finish second. (Photo: FasterSkier).
The Race

The week’s racing and back-to-back race days took its toll on racers. Energy reserves were low for everyone, and pacing during qualifiers and heats was critical. Women’s winner Swirbul finished seventh in the qualifiers and didn’t win any of her heats until it mattered most in the finals. She told FasterSkier that, “I was pretty tired today.  I didn’t really have it in me to go as hard as I possibly could in every heat. I knew I wouldn’t have any in the end. I tried to move on using as little energy as I could instead of a fitness contest from the first get go. I’m learning a lot about how to conserve energy in the whole sprint day, something I don’t get to practice on the World Cup.”  But Swirbul acknowledged that the strategy came with risk. She said,

“The semi-final was a stacked group. That cut it pretty close for me. I wasn’t planning on having a four-way lunge with everyone.” Hailey Swirbul

Hailey Swirbul’s first time crossing the finish line in the in the lead was in the finals. (Photo: FasterSkier)

Men’s podium finisher Jager also noted the strain of back-to-back racing. He told FasterSkier, “I was feeling some fatigue from yesterday. Especially since yesterday was a long one. I got better throughout the day. I knew that…today I needed to hold back everywhere I can and stay in the group as much as I can, just wait to the finish. I got a little more dialed every heat.”

In addition to fatigue, the women’s race faced some controversy. In the semifinals, Mariel Merlii Pulles (University of Alaska Fairbanks), who finished second in Wednesday’s classic sprints, was relegated (moved to last) in her heat due to interference. The infraction occurred in the final few yards of the race. Pulles was boxed out at the finish and tried to pass Karianne Dengerud (University of Utah). As Pulles pulled up to Dengerud their skis tangled and Dengerud tumbled to the ground. At the finish line it was Tilde Baangman first, followed by Pulles, with Dengerud sixth. However, the jury ruled that Pulles interfered with Dengerud and Pulles was penalized by relegation. Racing was held up for about five minutes while the jury deliberated. Race technical delegates told FasterSkier that there was some discussion about whether there could be any compensation awarded to Dengerud due to her position near the finish when the violation occurred, and ultimately, they determined that there was nothing within the rules that could be done to compensate her.  With Pulles’ relegation, Dengerud’s day would end with her in fifth place in the heat.

As women’s racing continued into the finals, all eyes were expectantly focused on Swirbul to see if she could sweep the week’s events. Jortberg went out fast, and Swirbul latched on to the back of the pack.  Going into the course’s steepest hill for the first time, Swirbul swung wide to pass several skiers and pulled into second. The second time around on the hill Swirbul asserted herself and pressed into the lead. Swirbul put the accelerator pedal all the way down into the stadium and ended up beating out McCabe and Jortberg.

The clean sweep for Swirbul was satisfying. She said that she had held out hope for the possibility of sweeping the week. Swirbul had taken inspiration from her teammate, Rosie Brennan, who had previously accomplished the same feat. She said, “Our coach had talked about that quite a lot, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps, and she’s been a huge inspiration for me.” She continued that, “What means more to me is that I get to be here at nationals. I’m so stoked that I chose to have that be part of my plan this year, instead of going to Europe at the start of the season. So, win, lose, or draw, that’s what I’m really excited for…I love this community.”  Swirbul said that this felt like the high point of her career because,

“I am the most happy where I am right now, and I don’t feel like I’m wishing I was home or wishing I was somewhere else.  I’m just happy to be where I’m at and happy to be racing well at the same time.”                   Hailey Swirbul

In the men’s final race, Thomas O’Harra (APU Nordic Ski Center) took the early lead. But most of the field passed O’Harra the second time up the course’s steep hill with Jager and Karsrud surging to the front. Jager had built a very slim lead at the top of the hill. Into the stadium it was Karsrud and Jager in the lead, with Jager holding a slight advantage. But Karsrud had a gear that no one could match and pulled away from the field. Jager acknowledged Karsrud’s finishing prowess:

“Karsrud in that final 100 meters is the stuff of nightmares. He’s just so strong.”  Luke Jager

Jager said that he wanted to be in front coming into the stadium. He told FasterSkier that, “I really didn’t like my odds against him in a head-to-head because of how its been panning out for me every other time. He’s an absurdly strong finisher. I feel like the World Cup heats I’ve skied have had finishes that weren’t that fast.”

Men’s sprint podium (l-r Luke Jager, Kristoffer Alm Karsrud, Tom Mancini). (Photo: Dr. Amy Kostrzewa).

For Karsrud, who skis for NMU, the course at Houghton has a bit of a home field advantage feel for him. He said, “This is the third time for a skate sprint here this year, so I know the course really well.”  The Wildcat junior said his strategy was, “To pretty much just take it easy in the start, stay far back, and then take it the last 100 meters.”  The strategy panned out perfectly for Karsrud, who’s afterburners were unmatchable, and led to a perfectly executed race.

Men’s winner Kristoffer Alm Karsrud with a monster finish had time to celebrate. (Photo: FasterSkier).

The exciting racing was a fitting way to conclude the competition in Houghton. The venue was well organized, and the conditions were excellent. It was all one could hope for in a national championships.

Full Results

Ken Roth

Ken lives in Southeastern Michigan. He's an avid outdoor sport enthusiast. He's an attorney, former Mayor of Northville, Michigan, and former bowling center owner. He's spent much of the last 35 years trying to chase down his wife on classic skis; to no avail.

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply