Elizabeth Swaney is not bad at skiing, not at all. But she is not very good, either, and certainly not Olympic-caliber in the halfpipe. So how, at age 33 no less, did she manage to make her way into the field at that event in the Winter Games?
The answer, or at least how to frame it, lies in the eye of the beholder. Either Swaney is an embarrassment to the Olympics who gamed the system on her way to PyeongChang or she is an admirable study in persistence who provided the kind of offbeat story at the Games that has charmed us in the past.
Swaney’s run at these Olympics is over following a last-place finish during Monday’s qualifying rounds for the women’s freestyle skiing halfpipe final. She told Reuters that she was “really disappointed” at not having qualified for Tuesday’s final, but she showed some pride in simply getting as far as she did, saying, “I worked really for several years to achieve this.”
Some who watched her compete Monday might have wondered what in the world Swaney was trying to achieve, given that while the elite skiers around her were risking major injury with high-flying tricks, she was content to mostly ride up the side of the pipe and do a little hop while turning around. She added a teeny bit of flair to her first run by skiing backward out of the pipe.
Despite not falling in her two runs, and thus avoiding major penalties, Swaney posted a high score of just 31.40. For context, the next-lowest score that counted for a competitor was 45.00, the third-lowest was 56.60 and the lowest qualifying score was 72.80.
“It is an honor to compete at the Olympics, and I am really excited to compete among other amazing women from across the world,” Swaney said.
Born and raised in the United States, where she attended Cal-Berkeley and Harvard, Swaney competed at PyeongChang for Hungary, where she said she has heritage through her maternal grandparents. When Swaney began competing in halfpipe events in 2013, she was representing Venezuela, then switched to Hungary in 2016.
Her spot in the Olympics is a result of the relative lack of depth in women’s halfpipe and the fact that some countries that dominate in the sport, such as the United States, can only send four competitors. Swaney did her part, at least according to the rules for eligibility set forth by the International Ski Federation (FIS), by doggedly appearing at World Cup events — and not falling.
The minimum requirements for making it to the Winter Games included consistently finishing in the top 30 in World Cup events and accumulating enough FIS points. The former was not a major problem, as many World Cup events did not attract 30 women, and her play-it-safe approach — to perhaps put it far too kindly — ensured that she remained upright and came away with at least a few points.
According to the Denver Post, Swaney has traveled the world to compete in World Cup halfpipe events, including in China, Italy, France, South Korea, Canada and New Zealand, as well as stateside in California, Colorado and Utah. Her best result was 13th out of a field of 15 competitors in China, when most of the world’s top skiers were at a more prestigious event in the United States.
“The field is not that deep in the women’s pipe and she went to every World Cup, where there were only 24, 25, or 28 women,” a veteran FIS judge said of Swaney to the Denver Post. “She would compete in them consistently over the last couple years and sometimes girls would crash so she would not end up dead last.
“There are going to be changes to World Cup quotas and qualifying to be eligible for the Olympics. Those things are in the works so technically you need to qualify up through the system.”
The Denver Post also reported that Swaney’s fellow competitors at the Games had “mixed feelings” about her presence and preferred not to speak on the record, indicating that those feelings tended toward the negative. Others online were less reticent to express criticism, and it probably didn’t help Swaney’s cause when a decidedly underwhelming training video began making the rounds.
Others, though, saw Swaney’s inclusion in the Olympic field as either harmlessly amusing or ironically inspirational. Many recalled how Great Britain’s John “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards became a sensation at the 1988 Calgary Olympics for his hapless adventures in the ski jump, and a much more recent example was cited regarding the cross-country competitors from unlikely countries, including Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua and 43-year-old German Madrazo from Mexico, who finished far behind the pack in the men’s 15 km freestyle Friday.
Even if some are less than thrilled with her appearance in the Olympics, Swaney hopes that she helped “inspire others in Hungary and the world to become involved” in her sport.
“Maybe perhaps I’m the bridge to those who want to get started in the life of freestyle skiing, and I want to show people that, yeah, it’s possible to get involved in freestyle skiing through a variety of backgrounds,” she told the Denver Post.
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