Hailey Swirbul Retires Having Achieved Loftiest Goal: “I Love that I Can Always Nordic Ski”

Ben TheyerlApril 19, 2023
Hailey Swirbul enjoys her time in the leader’s chair the 10 k Skate in Davos in December 2021. Swirbul would earn a third place finish on the day, landing her on a World Cup podium. (Photo: NordicFocus).

After each of her races on the World Cup this season, Hailey Swirbul would write in her journal. “I tried to answer a couple of questions,” she explained. “What was good today? What was hard? And what do I want to carry forward?”

That last question, “What do I want to carry forward?” typically kept an eye on next week’s racing. But after she crossed the final finish line in Lahti, Finland, those questions would begin pertaining less to the next ski race, and more to the life that lies ahead. In announcing her retirement, Hailey Swirbul now re-assesses what she will carry forward from this ski season. According to her recent comments, what she will carry forward is a reclaimed love of skiing, a commitment to processing the joy of competition just as much as the challenge of sorrow, and an embracing of what life may bring her as a retired professional skier.

“Special would be an understatement,” was how Swirbul described the heartfelt send off from her time on the World Cup circuit when FasterSkier caught up with her in an interview last week. On the final day of an historic season for the US Ski Team, the love for her poured in. “Hailey, you’re so funny and sweet and smart and caring,” wrote Jessie Diggins in her first Instagram after the World Cup season ended. “And you will be missed in our everyday lives all winter!”

For all the processing of pure emotion, though, Swirbul also appreciated the love in Lahti on a critical scale: understanding the love behind the love. “I think we tend to wait until it’s over before we really let someone know how much we’ve appreciated them and what they’ve done,” she said. “But the feeling for me there—surrounded by my teammates, coaches and all the people who have played part in my journey to the World Cup—was that the love had always been there. I want to carry that forward.”

Swirbul’s career traversed Junior and Senior National Championships, World Cups, World Championships and the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Coming into her final World Cup season, Swirbul identified two dreams she decided were attainable this season: 1) “Try and win every race at US Nationals,” and 2) “Do whatever I could to help the USA relay team earn a medal at World Championships, whether that was being part of the team or being the best teammate I could be.” She took the critical approach, not just setting those goals, but asking how to best achieve them. To race her best at US Nationals, she would need to race in the US, which meant staying off the World Cup even after being offered starting spots early in the season. To be the best teammate she could be at World Championships, she would take on the even harder task of becoming the best version of herself, working as hard on her relationship with skiing as she worked on the skiing itself.

When the World Cup season opened in Ruka, Swirbul was a world away in British Columbia where she swept the SuperTour’s opening weekend. It was an auspicious start, but the most consequential race towards her journey in reclaiming a love of skiing would come a week later in Sun Valley. “That is the one race that sticks out in my mind, that was the moment,” she said. An early season snow storm had dumped multiple feet of snow in the mountains of central Idaho. “It got chaotic,” said Swirbul, referring to the blizzard that swirled throughout the SuperTour race. “It was miserable in the moment, honestly, but what really stuck out to me throughout the race was that the whole community had come together to make it happen and was out there suffering together. I thought, ‘Oh, this is what this is all about.’”

And then, there was bacon. “I got back to the wax table and the Jackson Hole team was cooking out, and the coach was like ‘yo, you want bacon?’ And I was like, ‘yes!’. From there, watching the juniors push as hard as the pros, the vibe being just fun and the energy high, it really brought home the fact that rain, shine, or blizzard, we were all out there for the same reason.”

Hailey Swirbul takes the classic sprint win at the 2023 Cross-Country Ski National Championships in Houghton, Michigan. Swirbul won all four races during Senior Nationals this season. (Photo: Torsten Brinkema)

Swirbul arrived in Houghton, Michigan for the US Cross-Country Ski Championships with her goal of winning every race on her mind, but also with a mind towards genuinely enjoying the experience. She opened the week with a National Championship in the 10 k Freestyle, and then never looked back. When she crossed the finish line in the Freestyle Sprint later that week, she also realized one of the two pre-season dreams: all four races in Houghton listed Hailey Swirbul’s name in first place.

The energy of the season turned towards dream two: to do anything she could to help the US win a relay medal at World Championship. Swirbul knew she was up to the task. Earlier in the World Cup season, she had been chosen to ski the lead leg in the 4 x 5 k relay for the US in Toblach, Italy. The day was strange but powerful: a late substitution from Germany resulted in a disqualification that knocked them out from third place. The fourth-place finishers—Team USA—were elevated to a bronze. For Swirbul, though, the eventual medal wasn’t as consequential as the effort put out. “It was really powerful to race for something bigger than myself,” she said. “I realized I can suffer the hardest when Rosie Brennan is there waiting for me and counting on me to stay in contact with the lead group.”

At the World Championships in Plancia, the same Toblach US relay team finished fifth place. The result in Swirbul’s dream remained just out of reach, but the dream itself—to do everything she could to help the US win a medal—had been achieved. That realization—that every living dream isn’t exactly as it may seem—allowed her to view the larger picture around racing even more clearly. Another dream rose up within Swirbul, “I made a goal to leave skiing on a positive note, and that was when I realized that I felt like it was time.”

“I love skiing because of the community, the idea of peacefully doing battle, having a place to push to a place you didn’t know you could push to, exploring and being exposed to different parts of the world. That was about when I realized I really loved it” she said. With a decision made to leave the World Cup, Swirbul would use her last races on the World Cup to process her love of skiing, in full.

That was when she started journaling. “It opened my mind to focus on what was important about skiing. I wanted to get that down, to really think about what I want to bring forward in my skiing life.” What was important began to bring the whole tableau of her skiing life, from starting out in Carbondale, Colorado to the acute experience of each World Cup race, “I kept coming back to the ski community. Every time I asked, ‘what was important?’ it was directed at the ski community—whether that was helping guide Sammy Smith through her first few World Cups, being a good teammate, or contributing to someone else’s success in a small way, it was always looking elsewhere. Results never stuck out as important.”

Team USA: Rosie Brennan (USA), Samantha Smith (USA), Jessie Diggins (USA), Julia Kern (USA), Hailey Swirbul (USA), (l-r) celebrate the end of the season. (Photo: NordicFocus)

World Cup Finals came and went. Swirbul gave her all to the very last, crossed the line, and was lifted up by her teammates both literally and figuratively. The “process of processing things” as she would put it, had begun. “I made the decision on purpose not to have a completely thought-out plan on what comes next. I wanted to listen to what my intuition is telling me about where to go.”

“I am just really grateful,” Swirbul said, “For the people, for the sport, and for the places I’ve been. More than anything, I love that I can always nordic ski now. That feels really special, really good.”

Hailey Swirbul pushes to the finish of the 10 k individual start classic during the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Ben Theyerl

Ben Theyerl was born into a family now three-generations into nordic ski racing in the US. He grew up skiing for Chippewa Valley Nordic in his native Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before spending four years racing for Colby College in Maine. He currently mixes writing and skiing while based out of Crested Butte, CO, where he coaches the best group of high schoolers one could hope to find.

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