HOUGHTON, Michigan — Sydney Palmer-Leger spent her youth training and racing with Novie McCabe at Western REG camps and mid-2010s Junior Olympics. She spent Period 1 of this year’s SuperTour battling for the win with Hailey Swirbul in nearly every race. Friday morning at 2023 U.S. National Cross-Country Championships saw the three women come together yet again, this time with a national championship in the women’s 20-kilometer mass start classic race on the line.
The race started at 11:15 a.m. Conditions were near-perfect; cold and clear temperatures Thursday night made for solid tracks, but a rising sun quickly warmed up the air temperature if not the snow temperature. This reporter wore sunglasses for the first time in a week in Houghton.
McCabe, Swirbul, and Palmer-Leger started in bibs number 101, 102, and 103, the sharp end of the chevron start, a decided advantage in the field of 66 athletes.
“Women’s racing is chaotic at the start” in this country said Swirbul, who has spent most of the past few seasons racing on the World Cup. “Holy moly. I kind of forgot about that with a mass start. The first seven or eight kilometers, it was kind of everyone stepping on each other, swinging around each other in the downhills, cutting each other off, which was really chaotic and stressful.”
“On the first downhill there was a fall that I could see in the back of my head,” echoed Palmer-Leger. “And I was glad not to be in that. In my periphery I could just see, as I was going around the corner, someone go down. You can hear some screaming.”
Safely ahead of the carnage, the three women, who have to have been classed among the safe bet pre-race favorites for today’s race — they made up all of the podium in Monday’s distance race, and two-thirds of the podium in Wednesday’s sprint (McCabe is less accomplished as a sprinter) — skied ahead.
Midway through the second of four, five-kilometer laps, McCabe decided it was time to move.
“Novie made a move to kind of spread things out” at around the 7 or 8km mark, Swirbul said. “I could tell she was sick of the chaos. And that strung it out a little bit into a group of four of us, I think.”
As Swirbul noted, the surge worked. At the 10-kilometer mark, the lead pack was Swirbul (APU), McCabe (Utah), and Palmer-Leger (Utah), with Alex Lawson (Craftsbury) tucked in right behind in fourth, the group already twenty seconds up on fifth. At the 15km mark, it was down to Swirbul, McCabe, and Palmer-Leger, with Lawson valiantly skiing alone in no woman’s land, 16 seconds back of third and nearly 30 seconds up on fifth.
American skiing is one small town, and many athletes know each other, at least casually, from REG Camps or NEG Camps or U18 or World Juniors trips. By the time you’re contending at the front of a national championship race, you’ve probably been in the sport long enough to meet the athletes skiing around you.
There’s familiarity, and then there’s skiing on the same college team. Palmer-Leger and McCabe have been teammates at the University of Utah since fall 2020, sharing workouts and van rides and team meals. They were on the same relay team at World Juniors in 2019 and 2020, even tagging off to each other in the 2019 race.
And while Swirbul, 24, is a few years older than McCabe, 21, and Palmer-Leger, 20, she was in the same Intermountain Division junior races throughout Palmer-Leger’s adolescence. Much as in the men’s race earlier in the day, there’s some shared history there.
So what did the athletes know about themselves and about each other as they felt each other out on that last lap?
Here’s McCabe: “To be honest, I feel like both Sydney and Hailey are very good all-around athletes, like they’re strong at most things.”
Here’s Palmer-Leger: “I’ve been racing Hailey and Novie since I was a U12. So going up to these big races and still racing them is incredible. … I got to see [Hailey] go to World Juniors with Hannah Halvorsen” at her home course of Soldier Hollow in 2017.
And here’s Swirbul: “I know how strong those two girls are. And I know that they know how to dig really deep.”
Here is the course that the three women were embarking on for the fourth and final time starting at 10:15 this morning. It does end with a climb back to the stadium, but, crucially, it is a gradual and rolling climb, not a steep, V1, jumpskate wall of a climb. There is also no final hill before a final descent back into the stadium, a feature common to many global championship courses over the past decade.
If you know anything about the strengths of the athletes in question at the sharp end of this race, you can probably see where this is going: McCabe tried hard to break the group apart before it could come down to a finish sprint that she would presumptively not win; she was unable to do so; Swirbul and Palmer-Leger sprinted it out in the stadium for the win; McCabe followed in third, a few seconds behind. “I knew that if I was going to win, it would probably have to be earlier than the last 400 meters,” as McCabe candidly noted afterwards.
Swirbul won, by 0.4 seconds, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion. Watch the close of the race, either starting at the 2:56 mark of the livestream or in the following embedded video:
Palmer-Leger is soundly in the lead as they enter the stadium, doublepoling with controlled ferocity. Swirbul, who had already dug deep to put in a strong push up the final hill thirty seconds prior, is still in touch, but also falling behind with every powerful doublepole from Palmer-Leger.
Suddenly, in an act falling somewhere between desperation and inspiration, Swirbul starts striding. She begins to close the gap. She draws closer, but so does the finish line. She comes alongside Palmer-Leger. Palmer-Leger sees her on her right, and likewise switches into a stride.
Ten meters from the line, maybe less, is the first time in the entire stadium that it looks like Swirbul might actually pull it out. Both athletes are doublepoling now. Swirbul lunges, her face a rictus of triumph and pain, while Palmer-Leger sags. Suddenly, Swirbul has won.
Both women collapse on the ground, chests heaving. McCabe follows ten seconds later. (Alex Lawson of Craftsbury doesn’t get much airtime in this recap, but she deserves immense credit for staying tough while skiing solo, for nearly half the race, after being dropped by three skiers stronger than her that day. Lawson finished fourth, roughly 70 seconds behind McCabe, holding off a hard-charging group of four more athletes by seven seconds.)
Swirbul has 46 World Cup starts to Palmer-Leger’s four. She has World Championships starts, an Olympic team nod, and a World Cup podium, among other entries in her palmarès. What was it that she drew on from this rich wealth of experience that prompted her to make the decisive but unorthodox last-minute move to striding when all seemed lost?
As the renowned nordic ski analyst Wu-Tang Clan famously observed, “Cash rules everything around me.” Which is to say:
“If I’m being totally honest, there’s a lot of money on the line here,” said Swirbul. “And I’ve got to pay my rent.”
She continued, “So that spurred me on. I kind of did a Hail Mary of, I know she’s gonna beat me in this doublepole drag race, I won’t be able to gain on her because she’s a really strong doublepoler. So the only tool I’ve got in the toolbox was to try out striding, and somehow I strided all the way to the finish and slowly closed that gap with like a meter to spare. That was the most exciting finish I’ve ever been a part of.”
Swirbul, who has spoken candidly throughout the first part of this season of her quest to rekindle her joy of skiing, was asked how she was doing. “I’m exciting to be here,” she said. “And I’m excited to have a break after this and go home and see family. So I’m good.”
Skiing-wise, Swirbul will travel to Livigno later this month, and will resume racing on the World Cup. “I hope that it goes well and that I find some joy over there,” she said.
McCabe, meanwhile, will next set her sights on college racing; she races in Bozeman next weekend in the Montana State Invitational on the RMISA circuit. She will prep for U23 Championships, then leave for Whistler on January 21. “And my main goal this season is to do well there,” McCabe noted. She plans to target NCAA Championships and SuperTour racing after that.
Racing in Houghton continues tomorrow with the SuperTour skate sprint, the last of four races here this week. Between 2020 and 2023 U.S. Nationals, Swirbul is undefeated in Houghton when wearing her lucky Becca Rorabaugh–designed Pandana, “River Sunset” model. Tune in tomorrow to see if the buff leaves Houghton undefeated.
— Gavin Kentch
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