HOUGHTON, Michigan — For the Rosie Brennans and Julia Kerns of the world, the question of where to race is an easy one: These women are World Cup stars, and are finding success racing at this level. For someone like a collegiate skier whose reach results goal is to qualify for NCAA Championships, the question of where to race is similarly easy to resolve: the college circuit is a good match.
It’s athletes somewhere in the middle who can find life getting complicated. Racing at the highest level possible is always an easy answer — but, as Hailey Swirbul candidly noted earlier this season, a lifetime of racing up had rendered ski racing for her as something more like a brute-force test of fitness than an opportunity for strategy or tactics. (“I never learned how to race to win,” she bluntly wrote.) Liminal spaces are tricky, and every athlete needs to find the answer that works best for her at a given stage of her career.
The three athletes at the top of the podium in Saturday’s SuperTour skate sprint here in Houghton — Hailey Swirbul, Novie McCabe, and Lauren Jortberg — all took different approaches to start this year.
Swirbul opted to race domestically, where she won nearly every race she entered while speaking candidly about finding renewed fulfillment and joy in skiing. McCabe raced Period 1 World Cups in Europe, where she found some success but also battled sickness and by her own account did not end up racing as much as she had hoped to.
And Jortberg also accepted World Cup starts, which for her largely looked like the grinding, dues-paying, yeoman’s work of someone certainly capable of skiing on the world’s biggest stage, but still doing the work necessary to learn how to do it well. The idea of World Cup racing is glamorous; the reality of finishing 34th, 41st, 45th, 54th, and 56th in your first five sprint quals may be less so.
When Jortberg toed the line for the sprint final early Saturday afternoon here in Houghton, beneath gray skies on a day that felt colder than the mid-20s registered on a thermometer, it was her first sprint final in a FIS race since a SuperTour in February 2022, eleven months ago. Before this week, she had not raced a sprint heat since Spring Series in Whistler in March.
Jortberg finished third today, so she’s hardly forgotten how to race, even if some of her earlier races this week left her wanting more. But she did speak candidly about this process in her post-race comments.
First, though, the race itself. (Skip to 3:36 on the CXC livestream if you’d like a replay.) Jortberg, who was wearing bib number 1 as the day’s fastest qualifier, took the lead heading out of the stadium, as had been her wont all day. Weronika Kaleta of the University of Colorado followed, with Swirbul chilling at the very back of the pack.
Jortberg came into the base of the climb in the lead, and reached the top of the climb in the lead. Behind her, Swirbul made a massive move to come up from near the back of the field to near the front, jumpskating up the righthand side of the trail to slot into second behind Jortberg as they took the sharp lefthand curve.
Swirbul was firmly in control from here to the end of the race. She moved around Jortberg, slotting in in front of McCabe to take away a line that the Utah skier may have wanted.
Swirbul rocketed into the stadium in the lead, first Jortberg and then McCabe trailing on either side of her. The only change within the final 75 meters was that McCabe drew steadily ahead of Jortberg. Swirbul won, for the fourth time in four races this week, ensuring that the APU skier would leave Houghton undefeated. McCabe, from the University of Utah, and Jortberg, from SMS, rounded out the podium.
Behind them were Weronika Kaleta of Colorado, Erin Bianco of Team Birkie, and Tilde Bångman of Montana State.
McCabe had entered the race with a general strategy of trying to stay near the front, as it is easy to become boxed out on the course’s one steep uphill. She executed the strategy fairly well, and was pleased with how the race went for her.
McCabe was also asked about how the course skied on skate skis versus classic. “Maybe I’m kind of biased because I like skating better,” McCabe presaged her remarks, “but I feel like it flowed really well on skate skis.” She posited that the course skied quite differently in one technique than the other, because in skating, “you’re not doublepoling the whole thing,” where it’s “easy to just get really tired in your upper body. And her it’s maybe a bit more just aerobic by the end.”
Continuing to compare the two sprint days, McCabe suggested that, on classic skis, it was “not quite as important to be near the front towards the end because there were six lanes going up the hill and you have a lot of room to pass,” while as a skate sprint there may be space for as few as two skiers side-by-side. “So I think today it was more important to be towards the front if you wanted to be at the front near the end of the race.”
As noted, Jortberg spoke expansively, and candidly, about her experience in Period 1 of this year as an athlete racing in the bottom half of most World Cup races. Her thoughts here are required reading for anyone this side of Klæbo who does not win every race they enter, and/or anyone who has ever struggled with their confidence as they work through how they know they can ski versus what their results seem to say about how they’re skiing right now.
“I think recently, I’ve had a little bit of confidence issues, or like lack of confidence, in the last few weeks of just World Cup racing,” Jortberg said. “And then coming back here, a lot of travel and everything.
“And so it feels like I woke up and was like, I think I can do this today. And then I did, at least in the qualifier, and I felt really, really good through the heats. And it was pretty tactical out there. And maybe it wasn’t the most tactically smart to lead every single one. But I didn’t want to get caught up in tangles. And I didn’t want to have anything like go wrong out of my control in that sense. So I’m pretty happy with how I felt today. Honestly, it felt like my body felt like I was firing, and I’m pretty excited on the effort and the result.”
Many, many skiers have confidence issues from time to time. Most skiers have the luxury of relative anonymity, and are not forced to work through said issues on the public stage of World Cup racing, when their results are instantly obtainable by anyone in the world with an internet connection. Jortberg is asked how she works on her confidence, when she is literally a pro skier in that setting.
“It’s really hard,” is her honest answer.
“I think I’ve been focusing a lot on process goals rather than result goals. And I think internally it’s been helpful, but I do feel like, Oh, I’m sure people want to see the results. And it definitely doesn’t feel good. And I’ve been trying to work on just focusing on, like, how I feel racing, on what I can control and what I can do myself, rather than, like, what other people are thinking of me.”
“And honestly,” she’s continued, “I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and be like, You did amazing, It’s really hard out there. And it’s really nice being here and not getting, like, Oh you sucked on the World Cup, that kind of thing, but rather people being like, Oh my gosh, I was really proud of you, I thought you did really well. And having that has been helpful, because it definitely was really hard during Period 1.”
According to current FIS point rankings, Jortberg is the sixth-best active sprinter in this country right now. (The five women ahead of her: Jessie Diggins, Julia Kern, Rosie Brennan, Hailey Swirbul, and Alayna Sonnesyn.) And she found this “really hard.” Be nice to the pro skiers in your life.
And finally, turning to the fourth-ranked American sprinter and the fastest woman in the field today, on the top step of the podium there once again stood Hailey Swirbul, for the fourth time this week in as many races.
I’ve asked Swirbul a lot of questions about her results this week, even while she has been commendably honest about aspects of her life other than results. (Here’s another plug for her Voice in Sport podcast, or her notably clear-eyed blog about her Olympic experience.) So to close out this week’s coverage of U.S. Nationals week in Houghton I asked her a single question, “How are you doing?”
Here’s her answer:
“I am content. I’m just happy to be in Houghton. And I’m really excited; I can’t believe that I got four wins out of this week. I think the last person to do that was Rosie Brennan, my teammate here, and our coach Erik Flora has told us tales of that experience. So I was definitely trying to follow in her footsteps if I could. So I’m glad it came together.
“But I’m excited. I’m tired, ready for a break, mentally and physically for a little while. So things are good.”
Results | livestream replay | pictures from SkinnySki
— Gavin Kentch
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