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Olympics 2021: Keegan Swenson carries the XC torch in his push for Tokyo

Swenson's Olympic journey began when he was a 10-year-old kid watching the NORBA National races at Deer Valley, Utah.

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In some ways, Keegan Swenson is a throwback to the old days of U.S. cross-country mountain bike racing, when star riders on factory teams battled each other at NORBA nationals for a chance to someday make it to the Olympic games.

Perhaps that’s because Swenson is a product of that bygone era. His passion for off-road racing sprung from watching pro riders duke it out at the NORBA races at Deer Valley, Utah, as a child.

“Todd Wells, Adam Craig, JHK, Sam Schultz — I remember watching them when I was a kid at the NORBAs,” Swenson told VeloNews. “I still have pictures on my wall from when I was 10 years old watching them, and it’s cool to now come full circle.”

That era of factory racing teams and NORBA nationals may be gone, but Swenson remains, and he’s dedicated himself to racing traditional cross-country mountain-bike races at home and abroad. His eyes set on qualifying for the Olympics, just like Wells, Schultz, and the other riders did more a decade ago.

“If you want to do the Olympics, you gotta race cross-country, and that is the driving motivation for me,” Swenson said. “That’s been my focus, and you gotta go all-in.”

Swenson grew up in Heber City, a short drive from Park City, and his parents took him to the nearby ski resort each summer whenever the NORBA — later National Mountain Bike Series — events came to town. Swenson raced on the grassy infield in the kids’ races each year, and then stuck around to watch the pro riders duke it out in the short-track and cross-country races. As the years went on Swenson blossomed into the strongest young rider in the region, then the state, and by the time he was a teenager, the country.

In 2012 Swenson stormed to the junior national championship title in Sun Valley, Idaho, recording lap times on the course that rivaled that of the top Under-23 riders. It was a breakthrough year for Swenson, who began racing internationally and scoring big results there, too. That year he landed on the podium in a junior World Cup race in Houffalize, Belgium — a sign that he had the legs and ability to compete on the international stage.

It was around then that Swenson first began to see a pathway that could one day lead to the Olympic games.

“I was a little older when it finally clicked — like ‘oh, wouldn’t that be cool, that would be super rad’ — but it wasn’t ever something I assumed would happen,” Swenson said. “It’s been a slow thing that’s built up as I’ve gone on. Only in the last 10 years has it gotten more into my head of how good it would be to go.”

But U.S. mountain bike racing was undergoing changes just as Swenson came into the pro ranks. The old factory teams like Subaru-Gary Fisher and Trek-Volkswagen — which actually had the budget to race the European World Cups — were long shuttered. Instead, many riders pieced together individual racing programs through smaller sponsorships, and those sponsorship programs valued domestic racing results.

The surging popularity of backcountry races like the Epic Rides series, and ultra-endurance events like the Leadville 100, gave cross-country mountain bikers other challenges and more diverse racing scenarios. The once cookie-cutter program of racing NORBA and World Cups was replaced by more diverse racing opportunities.

Swenson excelled at these longer formats — he was the marathon U.S. national champion as well as a winner of several Epic Rides series. But he kept his focus squarely on the World Cup series, because he knew that it could one day lead him to the Olympics.

But dedicating himself to the frenetic World Cups wasn’t always easy.

“There were some years that were pretty hard. You get over there and have rough races and get your teeth kicked in — it’s taken me a few years where I’m like ‘I’m done with this. I just want to do Epic Rides’ and then I have a good result at a World Cup and it feels awesome,” Swenson said. “A lot of the challenge has been mental with the strategy and tactics. There are a lot of pacing tactics that are hard to learn, because it’s easy to get carried away in the early laps.”

In some years Swenson was one of the only U.S. men racing overseas. And then, starting in 2018, Swenson got company. Christopher Blevins, then the Under-23 national champion, also became a stalwart on the World Cup circuit, and Blevins scored early results that hinted at future potential as an elite.

That year the two teamed up to race the two-person Swiss Epic stage that year, race and they ended up winning the final stage. They also became quick friends.

“Chris is suited toward more punchy and faster and shorter climbs, where I tend to do better on the longer sustained efforts,” Swenson said. “If the climbs are long enough I can make him hurt, and he’s always putting it to me at the [Pro XC] races in Vail Lake and Bonelli.”

Blevins’ rise and Swenson’s place in the World Cup made them friends but also competitors. When USA Cycling revealed its long team for the U.S. men, there were just two names going for the country’s sole spot in Tokyo: Blevins and Swenson.

That spot is likely to be decided this coming weekend at the Nové Město World Cup in the Czech Republic. On paper, Blevins has the better shot to go, with his top-20 finish at the Albstadt World Cup last weekend. But don’t count out Swenson. The American has been tackling these races since he was a child, and he’s ready to realize his Olympic dream.

Still, Swenson said he’s not going into the race with a do-or-die approach.

“The way I look at it, if Chris goes, then it’s because he’s the best one to represent us, and there will be no hard feelings there,” Swenson said. “I just want to do the best World Cups I can. I have enough internal motivation for racing. I like to race to win, and I don’t need that extra pressure in order to push myself.”