Okay, we’re back again. (I had one day in there of chaperoning a fieldtrip, which was planned, and then three more days of being home parenting a sick kid, which was not planned, but my kids only have one stay-at-home parent and there are lots of websites out there, and there you have it. Both kids now look happy and healthy and are back in school, so I am back to writing.)
Last month brought the introduction to and methodology for this series. Last week brought the unveiling of the top American male domestic skier, David Norris. Today brings the 2023 Nordic Insights Readers’ Choice American Female Domestic Skier of the Year: Hailey Swirbul.
APU skier Hailey Swirbul forged her own path in the 2022/2023 season, foregoing the Period 1 World Cup start rights she had earned in favor of racing domestically in an attempt to rekindle her love of skiing. Her approach was smashingly successful, both off and — probably not uncoincidentally — on the race course.
When not racing, Swirbul spoke glowingly of her joy in rediscovering the domestic ski community, of competing in races with lower pressure, of traveling the circuit and enjoying everything that goes on beyond the racing.
It feels a little silly to write of someone who was born in 1998 and is still only 24 years old that this was the year that Swirbul became a veteran presence… but the median age of the women on last season’s APU Elite Team was literally 18, so there was Hailey, mother to her flock of young ducklings as they traveled through SilverStar and Sun Valley in late November and early December, then on to Houghton in January. She seemed to truly enjoy the process and this newfound role, while providing what has to be termed *sportswriting cliché alert* veteran leadership for a young team. If you were 12 or 13 when Hailey Swirbul and Julia Kern et al. won that relay medal at World Juniors in Soldier Hollow in 2017, to train and travel and ski with Swirbul this past winter truly was to experience veteran leadership.
(Yes, some current pro skiers were not yet teenagers when that relay bronze happened. Yes, I am very old now. Yes, you are, too.)
Oh, and by the way, when racing, Swirbul won nearly everything that she entered. She had six podiums in seven SuperTour/NorAm races to open the season, scarcely ahead of Sydney Palmer-Leger in all of them. She once more earned World Cup start rights, this time for Period 2, and once more turned them down, here opting for U.S. Nationals in Houghton over the Tour de Ski in central Europe.
In Houghton in January, Swirbul literally won everything, first overall in all three national championships and the post-Nats SuperTour on the final day. Other athletes to achieve that quadfecta this century include, in chronological order, Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, Rosie Brennan, and Caitlin Patterson. That’s some good company. (Disclosure: Some of those four were “just” the first American in one race rather than winning all four races outright; I know offhand that all four women were the top *American* four times, but didn’t fully factcheck that beyond this.)
By the end of the week, Swirbul seemed at peace: with herself, with her racing, and even with the venue. “I am content. I’m just happy to be in Houghton,” she said at the end of a long week of racing. It was a notable moment of calm for an athlete who has sometimes struggled to find it.
(Yes Swirbul then placed as high as 12th on the World Cup and 18th at World Championships over the second half of the season, but the focus for this award was on domestic racing. In which vein, hat tip to Swirbul outlunging Kikkan Randall at NordicX back in Anchorage in April as she finished up her pro racing career with joy.)
Swirbul was for many a fairly clear choice for this award, ultimately capturing 52 percent of the vote. Second, with 24 percent of the vote, was Margie Freed of Craftsbury. Freed grew up in the St. Paul suburbs, skied collegiately for UVM, and moved down the road to Craftsbury Green Racing Project after graduating.
Freed’s result highlights in 2022/2023, her third season as a pro ski racer, came in familiar haunts: Cable and Craftsbury. She placed third in the Seeley Hills Classic and second in the classic sprint final in the mid-January SuperTour stop, then was first, third, and fourth in Spring Series in Craftsbury to round out the season. Freed was the second American in the 44km classic and the third American in the skate sprint, giving her her first two national championship podiums. Freed placed fourth overall in the season-long SuperTour standings, behind Swirbul, Palmer-Leger, and Alex Lawson.
Alayna Sonnesyn of SMS placed third in the voting, with 12 percent of the vote. Sonnesyn finished only four races on the domestic circuit this winter (she primarily raced World Cup), but she made them count, finishing first in the Wirth 20km SuperTour; first in the Spring Series skate sprint for her first national championship; first in the Birkie for her fourth win there in four starts; then “only” fifth in the 10km classic at Spring Series.
Sydney Palmer-Leger of the University of Utah placed fourth in the voting, just behind Sonnesyn. Palmer-Leger finished the season ranked second in the overall SuperTour standings, scarcely behind Swirbul. She collected her first career national championship in the 44km mass start classic at Spring Series.
The 2023 awards roundup should continue tomorrow, assuming that both my kids remain healthy. Fingers crossed.
— Gavin Kentch