Finn O’Connell, Hailey Swirbul Win 15km Classic to Open Sun Valley SuperTour Weekend


A longtime top domestic racer and a longtime contender but first-time winner collected victories in the 15-kilometer mass start classic race in Sun Valley earlier Thursday. Hailey Swirbul won the women’s race, continuing her scorching start to Period 1 of the 2022/2023 SuperTour season. Finn O’Connell won the men’s race, ascending to the top of the podium for the first time after threatening many times before.

Post is from a year-plus ago, late November 2021.

Men’s race

Finn O’Connell has been knocking on the door for a while now. The USST athlete, who skis domestically for the Bridger Ski Foundation Pro Team, had three fourth-place finishes in last season’s SuperTour races, all in distance races. This year brought a second and fifth in the opening SuperTour/Nor-Am races in Sovereign Lake last weekend, in distance races, plus a sixth in the sprint.

Today, O’Connell found himself on the top step of the podium, in a SuperTour, Nor-Am, or national championship race, for the first time. He broke away from David Norris (Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, or SSWSC), Peter Wolter (Sun Valley), and BSF teammate Reid Goble, among others, midway through the six-lap race to solo in for the win.

“My goal for the start of this season was to be the SuperTour leader and qualify for the Tour de Ski,” O’Connell wrote to Nordic Insights following the race. “I had some solid results in SilverStar, but I was definitely hoping for more. After last week, I knew I had the fitness to win races. And starting today I was 16 points behind Johnny in the overall points list so I knew I needed to win.

“So my plan was to start hard and try to make everyone suffer enough to the point where there would be a few of us in a sprint on the last lap, or I would end up skiing away from the pack. A Canadian, Scott Hill, started very hard so I was happy to tuck in behind him for the first two laps. We broke the field into 6 skiers by 5k. I then took over and set a hard but comfortable pace. Slowly over the next two laps I had a little gap. My skis were running great and I was still feeling good so I just kept pushing hard into the final lap. I had about a 15 second gap starting the final lap, and remembering back to our team cheer last night, ‘give’r hell,’ I went for it. While today was a good result, the work isn’t done yet. I have big goals for this season, and I am looking forward to achieving them this winter!”

O’Connell’s winning time was 41:16.9. Norris finished in second, roughly 24 seconds back, with Wolter third, roughly two seconds behind him.

Norris is the rare athlete to make a SuperTour podium while racing with an inactive FIS license, reflecting his quasi-retired approach to this race season. He “retired from full-time racing” this spring, according to this September profile in the Steamboat Pilot. Norris is currently coaching junior athletes with SSWSC.

“Overall I’m happy with today’s race and I think it will help build fitness for the rest of the season,” Norris wrote in an email to Nordic Insights. “I haven’t tested myself in a race effort since the Birkie and Tour of Anchorage last spring so I wasn’t sure how I would feel in the last two laps when things picked up. I’m grateful that SSWSC and SSCV [Ski & Snowboard Club Vail] were supportive and made it possible for me to both coach and race today.”

“Stoked to see that Norris still has it, such a legend,” wrote APU skier Thomas O’Harra on Strava after the race of his former teammate.

O’Connell came into today’s race second in the overall men’s SuperTour standings to John Steel Hagenbuch (USST/Dartmouth), as he noted in his comments. After Hagenbuch broke a pole on lap no. 4 today and finished eighth, O’Connell leapfrogs Hagenbuch by one point with today’s win to currently lead the overall standings, by Nordic Insights’ math… but no start rights are assigned until the end of the weekend’s races, so Tour de Ski starts are very much still anyone’s game.

Women’s podium today. (photo: screenshot from @apunordicskicenter Instagram story)

Women’s race

Hailey Swirbul is clearly finding success racing domestically to start this season, and seems to be finding fulfillment as well. Swirbul, who is on the U.S. Ski Team and races domestically for APU, turned down start rights for Period 1 of the World Cup to spend this fall racing at home.

Swirbul waxed ecstatic to Nordic Insights after winning her first race in Sovereign Lake last week, writing, “I’m happy with today, and I am so relieved to be starting my race season in North America. Being in Europe has been hard for me in various ways, and I wanted to check in with what skiing is all about for me again: pushing my body hard, being outside and gliding on snow, being surrounded by a small, safe and supportive community that are stoked about racing on a smaller scale.”

Swirbul sounded similar notes on Instagram after finishing first, first, and fifth in the ensuing three races at Sovereign Lake, recently writing, “Sovereign Lake, thank you for the snow ghost trees, the opportunity to connect with people from near and far, and the reminder to focus on what I love about this sport and community. 🤍❄️ This week of racing was a reminder of what it’s all about: seeing young kids give their all in the races, athletes surrounded by families cheering them on, remembering how to work through races that didn’t go our way, but also how to process the races that did. There are so many factors that make this community and opportunity special; I am remembering why I do this🥰”

Little changed on the results sheet for today’s race. Swirbul took her fourth win in five races to start the season, winning the women’s 15km classic mass start in 47:31.1. Sydney Palmer-Leger (USST/University of Utah) was credited with the same time. Streaming was not available, and live timing was somewhat wonky, but given the margin back to third it seems safe to conclude that the pair broke away from the rest of the relatively small field (20 women started) and skied alone for some time.

“Today’s race was really cool,” Swirbul wrote to Nordic Insights to recap her race. “I enjoyed getting to work together with Sydney to try to pull away from the field. She’s a fighter and we were neck and neck up the final climb and down the final descent. It came down to a really exciting sprint finish! Plus, skis were great despite the flouro ban! I’m looking forward to the next few races in a blizzard.”

Swirbul also had some frank reflection on what starting this season at home has meant to her. Here are those thoughts on full:

“What I’ve realized through starting the year on the Super Tour is that I have spent my entire ski career, from when I was a U14 long ago, racing up. When I was a U14, I raced up as a U16. When I was a U16, I raced in Scandinavia in U18 races. When I was a U18, I raced at World Juniors. When I was 21, I started racing on the World Cup.”

You know what I never did? I never learned how to race to win.

“I’ve spent most of my ski career with the understanding that racing is an absolute sufferfest and, more or less, a fitness competition from the start of the race. It turns out that fighting for my life to try to get top 30 results every weekend on the World Cup the last three years was an easy way to continue to do what I’d always done: try to race up a level before mastering the one before it. On the Super Tour, I do not consider myself a shoe-in to win every race. There are really strong skiers here. However, for the first time that I can remember, I am racing to win. It turns out there is a lot more to racing than a horrifically painful fitness competition, and it’s pretty freaking cool to realize that.”

Samantha Smith (USST/Sun Valley), who recently announced on Instagram that she will be taking her talents to Stanford this fall — Smith has represented the United States in international competition in multiple sports, cross-country skiing and soccer among them, before graduating from high school — was third, slightly over 90 seconds back. There was another 30+ seconds to Mariah Bredal (BSF) in fourth.

Swirbul and Palmer-Leger came into today first and second in the overall SuperTour standings; those rankings will remain unchanged after today. First on the SuperTour points list, for both men and women, at the close of this weekend’s racing, get start rights for the Tour de Ski if they want them.

Racing continues in Sun Valley with a classic sprint on Saturday and a 10km interval-start skate race on Sunday. Points calculations and World Cup start rights will be determined following the skate race. Again, you can find current SuperTour standings here; they had not been updated yet (with today’s results) at the time I wrote this, so you can check my math later today and see if I got this right.

Results (both races)

— Gavin Kentch

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