I grew up with the recurring theme that to be the best athlete, you had to be a 24-hour athlete. If you’re not living and breathing sport at every moment, do you really want it? There’s probably someone who wants it more…And they’re gonna be ahead of you if you do something different for a day…
It seemed like the only way to rise to the top was to take away “distractions” from sport—school, social life, other sports or hobbies, etc. I remember meeting Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen in 2015 at the International Junior Camp in Norway. She seemed so personable, so real, so relatable to my junior-in-high-school self. And she seemed like the first concrete proof that I didn’t have to fit into the 24-hour-athlete stereotype in my head to work toward being the best in the world.
International Junior Camp in 2015. Left to right: Alayna Sonnesyn, Hailey Swirbul (aka me), Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen , Katharine Ogden, Hannah Halvorsen.
I remember Astrid saying she had dealt with this same concept. She was in medical school, and also one of Norway’s top skiers. I remember Astrid mentioning that she had been told she should devote herself to skiing completely, but instead she stayed in school. She knew that for her to be HER best, she needed balance. That resonated with me.
As much as I’d love to say that after that moment I have kept a perfect utopia of balance, I most definitely have not. I still feel guilty and lazy if I alter my training because of a school assignment, or because I see a friend I haven’t seen in a while, or because I am tired after a day at work. I feel like a slacker and a bad athlete.
So it seems like I’m on a continuous journey to strike the right balance. I know 100% focus on skiing is not sustainable for my mental health, but I also know that I want to have a long and successful career in skiing. But what I have realized is that if I had to choose, I would choose to put my mental health and happiness above any result that may come from being a 24-hour athlete— if sacrificing those things is what it takes to get there.
I constantly wrestle with the idea that sport is so much more than numbers and data and results and logging training. I need to consider life stress and my long term goals and my other responsibilities and relationships with important people in my life. But I find myself swinging back and forth. When I’m motivated, it’s easy to fall into my pattern of using numbers and results as validation that I relied on for so much of my young career. But that feeling never lasts. I always seem to fall back into the cycle of depression and unfulfillment and asking myself if this is worth it."Make skiing fun again" -Me. Choosing sprint heats after qualifying for my second WC Sprint, forcing excitement and joy, if I'm being honest.
The thing is, though, I can see that it doesn’t have to be this way for me. I feel constantly suspended in the gray area between feeling like I am sacrificing a “normal” life for sport, and feeling like I’m not sacrificing enough to be the best at my sport. At the end of the day, my goal is to be okay with just that: being okay at things. Not THE best, just MY best. The mentality I have had about skiing is not sustainable for a long career. I know I have the power to change that, and I am going to do everything I can to get there and strike a balance that works for me. I hope we can all find that balance, and be patient with those who are still finding theirs—like me.