Elizabeth Swaney’s day-to-day life is not unlike that of any other Olympic athlete. She trains with a coach in Park City, Utah, and spends hours practicing her sport, freestyle skiing. She works multiple jobs—eight, at one point, by her count—in order to make ends meet. And just like any other Olympian, she expected all that hard work to pay off during the Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
Swaney seems like any other Olympian—until she starts skiing. Unlike the other halfpipe freestyle skiers in South Korea, her remarkably unremarkable run went viral, not for her amazing tricks, but for her near-total lack of them.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 20, 2018
During her halfpipe run, the Californian, competing for Hungary, appeared to simply ski slowly from one side of the pipe to the other, performing, it seemed, no tricks at all—prompting sports commentators to wonder how she had even made the Olympics in the first place. Reporters and fans accused her of “scamming” her way onto the team. “Is Elizabeth Swaney the worst Olympian ever, or just one of the craftiest?,” read one headline.
But Swaney didn’t scam anyone. Believe it or not, she actually spent years working to get to that start line. And she would like you to know she technically did three tricks during her viral halfpipe run: an alley-oop on each wall, in which a skier changes direction by rotating the opposite way they came into the wall, and one small 360-degree spin. Despite scoring a 31.4 out of 100, while the winner scored 95.8, Swaney is genuinely disappointed she couldn’t manage to make the finals. “I was hoping to get more air and go higher,” she said. And she can’t quite understand how she became the subject of so much scorn or why viewers reacted so differently to her than to other last-place Olympians. What consoles her, she said, is that the response from the athletes there, at least, was positive. “All the women I competed with, who ski halfpipe as well, they’ve all been supportive.”
Swaney’s Olympic aspirations were born, she says, when she was a kid in Berkeley, after seeing Kristi Yamaguchi skate during the 1992 Olympics. She started out taking beginner figure skating beginner lessons when she was a kid, but gave that up and moved on to more serious pursuits in high school, when she took up rowing and then switched to being a coxswain in college. After being medically disqualified during orientation at the West Point U.S. Military Academy—she says it was a misunderstanding—Swaney ended up spending a year at school in Minnesota before transferring to UC Berkeley in 2003 and joining the Cal crew team.
“She was a good team member,” said Steve Gladstone, the Berkeley crew coach at the time and now the coach at Yale. She wasn’t a varsity or a junior varsity crew member, he added. She was on a lower level boat, but she loved the responsibility of setting strategy and guiding the boat during races.
For most of us, that would have been that. For even the best collegiate athletes—and she wasn’t the best—college is often the height of athletic achievement. Plus, she had other things on her mind, including finishing up three majors: political economy, political science, and German. Swaney, though, lacks whatever it is that tells the rest of us to stop, to tone it down, to give it up. Instead, after watching the 2006 Winter Olympics, she submitted an application to the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. Her logic: steering a bobsled looks kind of like steering a boat.
She was accepted into the elite development camp, but on one condition. “They said I was too small for bobsled, but we’d like you to do skeleton instead.”
Obviously, she agreed.
Swaney went to team camp in Lake Placid, trained on her own, flew back and forth to Utah in between classes to work with the other U.S. skeleton athletes, graduated from Cal in 2007, and started work on a Master’s in design at Harvard, which she completed in 2009.
But she was still frustrated to be constantly missing out on making the U.S. National Team. So Swaney found an alternate route to the big leagues. She began competing for Venezuela, her mother’s birthplace.
In 2012, while she was training for skeleton in Utah, she started noticing freestyle skiers next door practicing their jumps into the nearby water pool. Remembering the thrill of cheering on skiers when she went to the 2010 Olympics as a spectator, she signed up for beginners’ ski lessons in the area.
“It was a whole new world on the mountain,” she said. Swaney had found her next new thing. Soon, she was competing in halfpipe freestyle skiing, first for Venezuala and then eventually switching to compete for Hungary, where her grandparents are from.
Six years later, she would find herself skiing slowly through the South Korean halfpipe in Hungarian colors, prompting a global debate over the spirit of Olympic qualification. Did she get there via a loophole? Did she essentially buy her way onto the team by flying around the world and cherry-picking qualifying events? Is this what the Olympics is supposed to be about?
“Changing national allegiance is not as rare as most people would believe,” said Julian Munoz, a Cal alum and two-time Olympian in alpine skiing for Costa Rica. Munoz was born in San Francisco while his Costa Rican parents were working in the Bay Area. He could have competed for either country.
The other thing spectators don’t really understand, he says, is how complicated Olympic qualification is. The rules are the same for everyone, including Swaney.
Swaney first had to compete in qualifying events in order to make it to the World Cup. She then had to meet Olympic minimums by being in the top 30 of at least one World Cup event and scoring a certain number of Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) points. She was able to achieve these results for a simple reason: there just aren’t that many women competing in halfpipe freestyle skiing on an international level. Most World Cups rarely had more than 30 women. And when she got there, Swaney was able to avoid falling, allowing her to log simple runs that put points on the board.
Only 24 freestyle halfpipe skiers make the Olympics, total, and each country can only send a set number of athletes — as is the case in every Olympic event. Per Olympic and FIS rules, the U.S. was only allowed to send four women in the halfpipe event. While the fifth- and sixth-ranked American skiers would certainly outperform Swaney, they didn’t get a chance to compete in the Games. But those are the breaks. Athletes who compete for a countries with deep rosters may never make it to the Olympics, despite being Olympic-level talents.
Indeed, many countries will focus on events with fewer competitors in order to have a better shot at medals, according to Jonny Moseley ’07, the TV presenter and gold medalist who attended Cal after competing in the Games.
That doesn’t necessarily mean anyone could do what she did, even if it looked easy. “The halfpipe is so big now it’s scary for even a guy like me, who used to do pipe in the old days, to drop in — never mind boost an air out of the top,” said Moseley.
Swaney’s success, he says, is probably best measured by her reception in Hungary. “In general, I think if the home country you represent gets a lift and gets excited about an athlete competing for them, then that is fantastic and in the Olympic spirit,” he said.
On the Hungarian sports site, Nemzeti Sport Online, and on their Facebook posts, Hungarians appear to be just as split on Swaney as everyone else in the world was. She was a kind of Rorschach test on skis. Some see a spoiled American who bought her way onto the team and embarrassed the country. Others saw her single-minded focus on a goal as inspiring.
Before she went viral, the Hungarian Olympic team posted photos of her on Facebook, celebrating her run. Later, the Hungarian Olympic Committee and ski federation gave ambiguous statements that called her a valuable member of the team, but also suggested that they may reconsider their qualification rules.
Swaney doesn’t speak Hungarian—she’s been taking weekly lessons via Skype—but she said her fellow team members and Olympians were supportive. Their response was in keeping with the atmosphere of the Olympic village, where there generally isn’t a question of an athlete’s right to be there, but rather an attitude that they’re all in it together, according to Munoz.
A few months ago, Swaney wrote a letter to her old crew coach, Gladstone, thanking him for what he taught her and telling him about her plans. He’s coached plenty of medalists in rowing, and while Swaney’s Olympic experience was very different from their’s, he won’t say it was less valuable. “She’s a wonderful, wonderful adventurous spirit,” he said. “I admire that.”
Somewhere in between adventures, Swaney was promoted to position as a full-time recruiter for a Bay Area tech company, which is where her focus is now as she weighs her next athletic pursuits. She also tried out for the Oakland Raiders cheerleaders and the Utah Jazz dance team. Twice. She ran for Governor of California too. “Just for fun, right?,” I asked. Sure, the auditions and the campaign were fun, she said, but “they were also genuine opportunities and interests I wanted to pursue.”
That’s the same attitude she brought to the Olympics. It might have been fun. We might have all laughed and shaken our heads. But she wasn’t pranking us. She was trying as hard as she could to pursue a passion, and take advantage of an opportunity. It never occurred to her she might not be any good or that she didn’t deserve to be there. And isn’t that a little bit what the Olympics are about—believing you can succeed, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?