With surprise 2022 Olympic debut in her pocket, Minnesota speedskater Giorgia Birkeland sets sights on 2026
19-year-old wasn't even expecting to make 2022 Team USA squad
ST. PAUL -- Giorgia Birkeland never wants the success to end. When the Hugo native finishes an AmCup championship in which she performed well, she’s bummed the season is over.
She’s always pushing for what’s next.
So immediately after her successful 2022 Olympic debut came to an end with the 19-year-old finishing 13th overall in the mass start in Beijing, Birkeland was already thinking four years ahead.
“Super happy, and really motivated,” Birkeland said of her emotions upon leaving Beijing. “I feel like 2026, after the closing ceremonies, that was super inspirational.”
It’s the right mindset for Birkeland, who jumped right back into her 2022 season when she got back stateside. She won’t see a true break until the end of the month.
That’s fine with her. She’s more motivated now than ever before. Frankly, this all came four years earlier than Birkeland expected. She long had eyed 2026 as her Olympic opportunity. That was especially true as she suffered a severe concussion that ended one season, and a broken ankle that sideline her for a significant portion of another.
Birkeland didn’t have designs on being in Beijing in February. Even as she performed well in qualifying races, there were setbacks. She didn’t have the proper transponder in one race, which cost her valuable points. In the next race, there was an issue with the lap markers that cost Birkeland positioning.
Still, heading into the final qualifying race at trials, her father, Tom, informed his daughter she potentially could make the Olympic team.
“And I said, word for word, ‘There is no way I’m making the team. There is no way I’m making it,’” Birkeland said.
And then she did it. Birkeland won the final qualifying race and, soon after, was awarded Team USA’s discretionary spot. She still remembers the phone call when she was informed.
“I was like, ‘What?’ Everyone was like ‘Oh my god.’ I was in shock,” Birkeland said. “I didn’t say anything for like 10 minutes. … It took me like a month to process it. I’m still processing it.”
Soaking in the moment
The month that followed was a whirlwind. Birkeland raced at the very end of the Beijing Games, but she was there for its entirety. The first week at the Olympics flew by, but she noted as the days wore on, it became harder to stay locked in. But she made a point before heading to the games that she was going to soak in the moment she worked so hard to reach.
“I remember like Opening Ceremonies, I was like crying. I was like bawling, because it was like ‘Oh my God,’ because it was super cool,” Birkeland said. “Even when I was stressed out about the race, you’ve just got to take a breath and be like, ‘Hey, you’re at the Olympics. Just take in the experience.’ It’s just all about the journey.”
And, when race day finally came, Birkeland capitalized. She achieved her ultimate goal of advancing out of the semifinals to reach the Olympic final.
“The semifinal was better than the final, just because I didn’t think I would make it to the final, so when I crossed the line, that was the best moment,” Birkeland said. “I was so happy, I couldn’t stop smiling. It also was super hard, because I only had an hour until the final. So I was like ‘Oh my god, Let’s go!’ And (national team coach Gabriel Girard) was like, ‘OK, you have five minutes to be happy. Then you have to think about the final.’ … It was like a rollercoaster, for sure.”
Birkeland doesn’t feel any different after her Olympic debut, noting she’s still “the same weird, little person. No different.” Yet still so much has changed. She’s verified now on Instagram, for one thing, and has a host of new followers. She’s been “overwhelmed, in a good way” by the number of messages she has received.
“There are people that I’ve barely talked to and they’re reaching out like ‘Great job!’ And I’m like ‘I don’t even know who you are, but thank you so much!’ ” Birkeland said. “It’s super nice to have the support. It means so much, I don’t think people even understand.”
What else has changed is Birkeland’s outlook for the 2026 Olympics. She still expects to be there, as was always the plan. But now maybe the goals are a little different.
Birkeland is a former Mahtomedi High School student who moved out to Utah when she was just 17 years old to train with the national team. She had never even competed in a World Cup event prior to these Olympics.
“I was the rookie of the rookies,” she noted.
She looked up to the sport’s top stars as “gods,” only to come to the realization they’re also just people trying their best to achieve their goals. And the way she performed in Beijing, with teammate Mia Manganello Kilburg finishing just off the podium in fourth place, winning at the highest level has never felt closer for Birkeland.
“This whole year was kind of like a struggle, and then I made it. That kind of gave me a ‘Hey, I can do this’ (realization),” Birkeland said. “So I think the next four years, instead of just ‘Oh, I’m going to make the 2026 Olympics. Just get there. That’s the goal.’ Instead, it’s going to be like ‘Hey, what can I do at the 2026 Olympics?’ instead of just making it.”