So many Alaskan skiers at the Olympics means busy watching

Two people in red jackets pose for a photo
Siblings Scott and Caitlin Patterson grew up skiing in Anchorage and are both headed to this year’s Olympics. (Scott Patterson)

There’s a strong Alaska contingent among the U.S. Olympians starting to arrive in China for the Beijing Winter Olympics.

That includes the eight Alaskan or Alaska-connected cross-country skiers, Fairbanks curler Vicky Persinger and hockey player Brian Cooper and bobsledder Hunter Church — both born in Alaska — as well as figure skater Keegan Messing, who grew up in Girdwood, lives in Anchorage and competes for the Canadian team.

Alaskans will also be getting updates from our former colleague here at Alaska Public Media, Nat Herz, who’s back with the Anchorage Daily News and reporting from Beijing for ADN and the online ski news site

Herz says besides Rosie Brennan and two other Alaskan nordic skiers are potential medal contenders.

Listen here:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Nat Herz: The two that kind of come immediately to mind are JC Schoonmaker and Hailey Swirlbul, who are kind of the two other folks aside from Rosie that you might be able to say have a pretty legitimate shot at medal.

Hailey Swirlbul grew up in Durango, I believe, Colorado and then moved to Alaska maybe a few years ago to ski with I think both University of Alaska Anchorage and the Alaska Pacific University team — now just skis with the Alaska Pacific University team. She’s had some really good results at altitude, which seems like maybe kind of reflects her upbringing in Colorado and, you know, (was) on the podium last year. I would not say she’s necessarily much of a hopeful for an individual medal. Just, I think she’s only about 23 and still kind of growing into her career a little bit. But the U.S. women have a real shot at a medal in the relay event, and it seems almost certain that Hailey Swirlbul will be on that team.

And then JC Schoonmaker is a student at University of Alaska Anchorage. He also is like the star sprint racer of the U.S. Ski Team right now — had some really impressive results for a guy who I think is maybe 21, in this year’s season over in Europe. And again, you know, not the kind of guy that anyone is really picking for the podium in Beijing. But if six guys fall down, and he has the best day of his career, he could come away with a medal. You never know, especially in a sprint, which is just a little bit more chaotic than most other events.

RELATED: Anchorage nordic skier Rosie Brennan heads to Beijing Olympics with high hopes for herself — and the next generation of athletes

So those are the ones I would say to watch. And then also, a really compelling story in Hannah Halvorsen, who’s another young skier — her first Olympics — who trains with Alaska Pacific University. She’s from the Tahoe (California) area and suffered really intense life-threatening injuries in a car crash. She was out for a walk, I believe, with her friends on like a First Friday in downtown Anchorage, and just got run over essentially by a car while she was in a crosswalk. And, you know, sustained a broken tibia, fractured skull, torn knee ligaments, traumatic brain injury, you know, took weeks before she could walk again. And this was just about two years ago, and she has had banner results on that European World Cup circuit — the top circuit — this year finishing as high as eight place. And she’ll be in the Olympics just two years and change after that accident. So, you know, pretty compelling and interesting story there, too.

Casey Grove: Wow, yeah, that is pretty amazing to be heading to the Olympics just two years after that all happened. It sounds like you’re tracking a lot of different things over there. I wonder, are you going to get any sleep? I mean, is it going to be a lot of running around and trying to be in the right place at the right time? Or what?

NH: That’s the question I have. But I think mainly I’ll be focused on the cross-country ski races, and I’ll be staying up in a mountain venue, which is about three hours, I think, by bus or train outside of Beijing, where some of the ice and skating-type sports are going to be happening.

You know, I’ve done this a couple times before. I was in Russia in 2014 for the Sochi Olympics, and then I was in Vancouver in 2010. The kind of schtick for the Olympics is like, yeah, you kind of get your butt kicked as a reporter. There’s just sort of no end to the number of cool stories and work that can be done. But the flip side of that is, you know, you get to experience new cultures, see some pretty astonishing athletic performances. And I would say I know what I’m getting myself into, and it definitely is going to hurt a little bit, but you know, I’m thrilled to be doing it as well. But yeah, not not expecting to be sleeping much.

You know, the whole Olympic system for both athletes and media and everyone else is sort of considered this quote-unquote, “closed loop.” And when I say considered, I mean is. And in a very nonnegotiable way, where it’s a bubble that you cannot leave. You can’t walk across the street to a convenience store. You can’t, you know, take a trip to the countryside to interview garden-variety Chinese locals. You’re really stuck basically in your hotel and at the competition venues.

CG: Well, thanks for giving us a rundown of who we should be rooting for over there. We’ll certainly be rooting for you. Are there any other big stories, you know, going into the Olympics that you know of?

NH: I mean, I think it’ll be interesting to see how much some of these other stories about China, about sort of geopolitical tensions, about real questions about human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, about surveillance. We know that athletes are being told, basically, don’t take your normal phones, don’t take your computers. I do think the extent to which these events kind of offer a window into this really fast-growing nation that’s sort of increasingly flexing its muscles on the world stage, and it’s just going to be a really important place and force, I think, in Americans’ lives in the coming years, I am really sort of interested to see how much the narrative and the focus and just the kind of discussion in China is on the Olympics and Olympic performances and athletes, and how much it’s on all this other stuff. Which is arguably much more important than a bunch of sports events. But I think, you know, at the same time, you don’t want to diminish the effort and time and blood and sweat and tears that everyone who’s participating in the Olympics is putting into it and bring to the table here. So yeah, TBD.

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Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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