By Hailey Swirbul
Team USA is returning from 2020 World Junior/ U23 Championships with 10 sparkling medals in tow and our first-ever individual Junior World Champion to boot. Absolutely insane and impressive, no doubt!! These successful results have been a dream for the US to achieve since I was just beginning skiing. But I’m worried, honestly, that our ski nation will see these medals and set increasingly high standards, and that the little victories will get overlooked.
I began my World Junior Championships racing career in 2015 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I got 41st or 40th or something like that in my races and I left that trip feeling STOKEDDD! But as I’m looking back, I wasn’t all that motivated by results that trip. Of course, I hoped to ski well and earn a good finishing place…But when I think about that trip, I think about putting glitter on Bryan Fish’s face before the relay; I think about the lady I came across on a jog who was literally taking a poo on the sidewalk; I think about whether or not I consumed horse meat unknowingly at the hotel buffet. Those moments and memories fueled me through the next summer of training as I longed to experience more of this new lifestyle. What I didn’t fully recognize was that having low pressure for results allowed me to enjoy the trip beyond the race trails and genuinely have fun.
The following year went differently for me. I found myself worrying about qualifying for the World Juniors trip months in advance. I had new expectations and internal pressure to continue my upward trend and improve my results upon the previous year and qualify for the trip in a higher ranked position. But I didn’t even qualify. And I was devastated—embarrassed, even. I couldn’t believe I had to stand as the second alternate in front of hundreds of people who had seen me qualify for this event the year before.
I think all skiers go through at least one period or season that really makes them evaluate why they do this sport. It might be brought on by illness or injury or mental health or overtraining or just an inexplicably crappy year. And it sucks. It’s messy and laced with self-loathing and doubt. It seems the outcome of a self-reflection period like that goes one of two ways: come out even more sure of what you’re doing or cut the line completely.
2016 was that period for me. My parents found me help for my relationship with food and my body and self. I learned how to treat my own self with the values I wanted to treat others: kindness, dedication, respect. I figured out what I loved about skiing and why I was sure I wanted to keep doing it, and at the base of those reasons was nothing to do with results. I wanted to develop a lifelong love of sport and outdoors, for example. Or learn how to manage relationships with teammates that I might not choose to be my best friends. Or develop relationships with teammates that inevitably would become my best friends. Heck, I’d even consider my First-JNs-Dance-Kiss a reason to continue the sport!!!
In this sport, we will all do TONS more losing than we ever will winning. I continue to do this sport because of the small victories that happen in between the big ones on the results sheet. I am leaving U23 World Championships without any medals and with results goals unreached, but I achieved so many small victories that I hadn’t even intended to. I made a few new friends, both within my team and outside of it. I learned how to make a repetitive European breakfast a little more interesting. I practiced fighting to the end in a race even if I struggled with my skis or didn’t feel my best. And I practiced accepting people’s differences and opinions that might not have aligned with mine. I grew as a person and an athlete, and isn’t that the whole point of experiences like this?
So, with no intention of diminishing the feat of the 10 Championships medals returning to the US this year, I hope athletes of all abilities, parents, coaches and fans will ask themselves or their athletes to remember the little victories: the step in the right direction, or even a step in the “wrong” direction that still helps us grow as community members and people. That way, we can all do a lot more winning in our lives than losing– the kind of winning that matters most.