PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Before the world knew her name and dissected her motivations and judged her and GIFed her and memed her, Elizabeth Swaney beamed. For six years, she had practiced skiing a halfpipe, working from halfway up its walls to three-quarters of the way to the edge of the lip. Going in the air still scared her, but that didn’t matter. Now she was an Olympian.
“Today was probably one of the most exciting days of my life,” Swaney said Monday in the hours after what soon would become the most famous halfpipe ski runs in the sport’s short life, in which she skied up to the edge of the pipe, then back down, a metronomic display of trickless welfare that followed her competitors’ airborne daring. In conversations that day and the following, she repeated the same mantra multiple times: “I was happy to put down two runs.”
Over the past quarter century, the 33-year-old Swaney had geared her life toward one goal: becoming an Olympian. When people asked about her future plans, she would say: “I live my life by Olympic cycles.” She tried figure skating and ice hockey and speed skating, and when the bladed sports did not take, she rode skeleton, and when she couldn’t slide fast enough, she learned to ski. She wanted to represent the United States, and when her talent wouldn’t allow that, she changed affiliations to Venezuela, and when a better path to her endgame presented itself, she switched again, to Hungary, whose red-white-and-green colors she wears daily in the athletes’ village.
Between the quality of her runs and her country-hopping, Swaney has become a simultaneous cult hero and object of scorn, the most polarizing athlete of the PyeongChang Games. The notion of a triple-major at Cal-Berkeley with a master’s from Harvard leveraging obscure rules into participating delights those who wonder what an everywoman would look like in the Olympics and angers others who believe she gamed the system.
“It’s totally the opposite,” said Tom Swaney, her father. “You know, there aren’t a lot of people that way anymore. There’s an earnestness and innocence in modern society you don’t see. She has it.”
As video of Swaney’s runs spread, it sparked discussion of Olympic morality and ethics, birthed snark that she had defiled a fringe sport seeking mainstream support, spurred debate over how she compared to Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel and other viral heroes of Olympics past. And all the while, Swaney didn’t embrace it, and she didn’t fight it. She said, “I’m always just trying to ski the best I can,” and left it at that.
“It’s really disappointing to see how quickly people jump to conclusions,” said Eric Hand, a longtime friend of Swaney’s. “They look at something surface-deep and assume the worst. If people really looked at her at a deeper level, there’s a more amazing story there.”
Around 2011, when Swaney was still a novice skier, Hand visited her in Park City, Utah, where she lived at the time. Soon after he arrived at the resort, Swaney asked if he wanted to try the halfpipe. Hand was incredulous. Swaney barely knew how to ski, and she thought nothing of dropping in to the iced-over pipe.
“She truly believes and sees the positive side of everything,” Hand said. “I’m jealous of it. She definitely seems to operate at a different level than the rest of us. Things that would affect any normal person she shrugs off much easier than she should. That’s gotten her into situations like, ‘What are you doing, Liz? That’s a distraction. It’s not worth it.’ For her, for whatever reason, it is. And she does it.”
They met when she decided to join the men’s crew team at Cal as a coxswain, one quixotic ambition in a life of them. When in Utah, she tried out as a dancer for the Jazz. She did not make the team. So she took lessons for the next year and tried out once more. She did not make the team again. That didn’t stop her from trying out as a Raiderette when she moved back to Oakland, California, her hometown, recently. She did not make that team, either, which was fine. The dance lessons, Swaney said, helped with her athleticism in skiing.
“I try to surround myself by people who inspire me,” she said. “Almost everyone I come across has an amazing story.”
Swaney is incapable of pretense and façade. Every piece of life has its purpose, and that purpose is innately good. Outside noise does not exist. She is her only compass. At 19 years old, she joined 43 others running for governor of California against Arnold Schwarzenegger. Her campaign never took root. Last year, she applied for the reality show “Worst Cooks In America,” hopeful she could, at very least, learn how to make a proper sandwich. Swaney was told she might hear back in January. She never did.
“Everyone envies her craziness to dream,” Hand said. “To go for what people say you can’t do. Even if it means failure. It’s something everyone is held back from in some aspects of life. For whatever reason, for better or worse, she doesn’t seem to have that inner voice that says you can’t do it. It’s something that on the surface you kind of roll your eyes and snicker at. It’s easy to laugh at and say she’s out to lunch. But the more you get to know her, you respect that – the power it is to have that kind of mindset.”
Hand remembers those first few days with the rowers, big, strong, alpha types. The coxswain sits at the front of the boat, strategizing, positioning, keeping the team on time. Its role is so much greater – a coach and motivator, someone who inspires trust. Initially, the team considered Swaney’s presence a joke. She was mocked. Except she kept coming back, day after day. Over time, the team grew to respect her, appreciate her, love her. When it won championships, even if she wasn’t in the boat, they were hers, too.
“I just try to keep an open mind and not put limits on my life,” Swaney said. “Those are two important values to me. I’m not a person that can be figured out. I think I’m still figuring myself out and always trying to push myself and go for new and exciting experiences.”
She remembers watching her first Olympics in 1992 as a 7-year-old and adoring figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, though Swaney’s mom, Ines, likes to point out that she was born in 1984 on the third day of the Los Angeles Games. “At the hospital she was watching the TV as a newborn,” Ines said. “We have a little joke in the family that she’s been brainwashed on the Olympics since birth.”
Without Ines’ heritage, Swaney’s Olympic career would not exist. Her mother grew up in Venezuela, which allowed Swaney to ski World Cup events in the United States, New Zealand and Canada starting in 2013. Three years later, she became the first freestyle skier to compete for Hungary, from which Ines’ parents emigrated around World War II. “It’s more difficult being a South American skier,” Swaney said. “I wanted to see what it was like being a European skier.”
She traveled to Korea and France and Spain and China, balancing a schedule that, at times, included half a dozen jobs. She worked in customer service for a startup and as a banquet server at night. “It was good exercise,” she said. Swaney pulled shifts as a cashier at Whole Foods and a Sprint Store between trying to sell real estate and coach skiing. One day, while looking for another gig in Park City, she stopped at a local TV station and asked if it needed help. Soon thereafter, she was doing the occasional weather report. Swaney worked 18, sometimes 20 hours a day. International travel cost huge sums, and when little support came from online fundraisers, Swaney said she scraped together the money any way she could to self-fund most of her trips. Missing even one event could have torpedoed her chances at PyeongChang.
The most important quality to qualify was showing up. Because of the paucity of women on the circuit and four-person participant limit for each country, Olympic halfpipe skiing offered her best opportunity. First Swaney needed to reach enough top-30 finishes in World Cup events. Six years of training had yielded improvements only marginal and incremental. That didn’t matter. The fields were small enough that she did so 13 times, even if she was the lowest-scoring pro on tour.
The other women knew Swaney only enough to nod, wish her luck, offer a nice compliment on her run. There weren’t many substantive conversations. And as much as the halfpipe skiing community saw her flouting the rules – abiding by the letter of the law if not the spirit – enough people understood Swaney’s single-mindedness to respect it.
“The Olympics has a spirit,” said David Wise, the men’s halfpipe gold medalist in 2014. “There’s something about going to the Olympic Games. Am I going to criticize her for wanting to be here and represent her country in the Olympics? No. No way. I’m inspired by her in that way. And the reality is, nobody’s out there telling her she’s awesome or amazing or the best thing ever the way they’re telling the people on top of the podium. To get through that and be here anyway?”
For that to happen, national organizing committees needed to cede their spots in the competition, allowing Hungary, a country without a mountain over 3,000 feet tall, to claim a spot on behalf of Swaney. She waited patiently, hopeful her childhood fantasy would come true. One time, in elementary school, Swaney was asked to put her hopes and aspirations into a few paragraphs. “Go to the Olympics,” hers said. That never changed.
“I think she realizes, in an intellectual way, not everyone is like her,” her father, Tom, said. “Maybe it’s partly nurture. But I think it’s nature. Certain people are born with certain personalities. She’s just that way.”
Around 2 p.m. on Jan. 24, Swaney was at Thumbtack, the gig-economy unicorn where she works as a recruiter, when she received a call from Andras Bajai. He is the president of the Hungarian Ski Federation, and he had news for Swaney: A space for Hungary in the halfpipe ski competition had opened up. She was in the Olympics, as long as she could get to Budapest by Friday morning for an anti-doping test.
It was Wednesday. She called her parents, who were vacationing in Hawaii. Tom looked up the flight possibilities. One existed. She needed to hop on a plane from Oakland to Los Angeles, switch airlines, jump to Copenhagen and go from there to Budapest. She stopped at home, where she lives with her parents, grabbed her passport and laptop bag, and jumped into an Uber without luggage, skis or boots. Swaney said she arrived as the gate was closing. She found out she just made the Olympics, she told the operator, and this was her last chance to get there. It was a good enough excuse, and it happened to be true.
On her layover in Copenhagen, she picked up some clothes, and a host family in Budapest allowed her to borrow a few more, and eventually she received a kit full of Olympic gear she would wear dutifully. Boots and gloves and goggles arrived via FedEx the next week, and two days before the competition, her sorority sister Kathleen McGuirk brought Swaney the Dynastar 6th Sense Superpipe skis she had used in all her World Cup events.
By then, Swaney had grown comfortable with a pair she borrowed from a ski shop in Budapest. She felt good about her practice runs. She wanted to get better amplitude on her jumps – maybe even throw a 360, like she does when she goes off ramps into a pool in Park City. “I spin really well in the air when we go down plastic slopes in water,” Swaney said.
One time, a coach told Swaney she needed to scare herself, so the night before the qualifying round for halfpipe skiing here in PyeongChang, she had an idea. She and her former skeleton coach, Nick Vienneau – who was in South Korea helping Simidele Adebago, the Nigerian skeleton rider – would head to a nearby halfpipe to ride some practice runs. It turned out the pipe was closed, and after some issues getting home, Swaney didn’t go to sleep until 1:30 a.m.
She woke up nervous. She wanted to qualify among the top 12. The infinitesimal likelihood of that – half the riders would have needed to crash on both of their qualifying runs – did not deter her. Swaney believed it possible because she was at the Olympics, and who else ever would have believed that?
Her parents watched the livestream at home. So did friends, who shared the link on Facebook to the web of passersby throughout the years who had met Swaney and were smitten by her optimism or intrigued by her inimitability. They saw live what millions of others would play for the next 36 hours. Swaney executed seven hits on the pipe. She managed an alley-oop – in which she twisted toward the top of the hill and executed a 180-degree turn – on the sixth. The rest were straight up, 180, straight down. Following the seventh jump, she turned to ski backward down the rest of the pipe. “Trying to show she has a little style down at the bottom,” said the announcer on NBC.
Swaney waved to the camera. She breathed and smiled. She thrust her arms in the air. She received a score of 30. Her second run received a 31.4. She finished 24th of 24.
Earlier in the Olympics, Swaney had met Pita Taufatofua, the Tongan taekwandoin-turned-cross-country skier, and German Madrazo, the 43-year-old from Mexico who recently took up cross-country skiing. The three posed for a picture. They were the same, really, Olympic ideologues, reverent toward the five rings, sacrificing money and time for the exclusivity of the experience. The backlash against Swaney dwarfed that of the men. It turned mean, personal.
“If it were a Jamaican girl, everybody would be like, ‘Oh, she made it!’ ” said Marie Martinod, the women’s halfpipe skiing silver medalist. “It’s the Olympics. Who cares where she comes from? You fight to be here. She’s not a great skier. But she made it.”
It’s easy to look at Swaney and accuse her of paling compared to her peers, because she does. It’s easy to hear her say “I’m disappointed I didn’t advance” and find it laughable, because it is. It’s easy to troll, it’s easy to ridicule, it’s easy to hyperbolize. So since that has been done ad infinitum, take a moment, consider what you may now know about Elizabeth Swaney and listen.
“My goals really drive me,” she said. “I’m not going to let people stop me with my goals. A rowing coach said you’re a very tenacious person. I don’t think of myself as different or special. I just work hard and try to achieve my goals and surround myself with people who support them.”
Nuance is lost on the Internet, and once video of Swaney’s first run circulated, the hyperbole machine cranked into gear. The Hungarian website Origo ran a story headlined: “Here is the video that the whole world laughs (at) – Elizabeth Swaney at the Olympics.” In Austria, it was much of the same: “Is that the most embarrassing performance of the Olympics?” A Hungarian blogger, Janos Kele, told me: “She has not even tried any tricks at an event which is literally about tricks. That’s not sport. That’s tourism.”
The criticism quickly filtered down to Bajai, who took over as president of the Hungarian Ski Federation on Nov. 20. Hungary is a country of less than 10 million, and its funding for skiing is meager. Bajai said he did not realize Swaney’s skills when the federation accepted her spot.
“I’ve received lots of negative comments and very, very few positive comments,” he said. “I, personally, disagree with all these negative comments. Because this gives a boost to the younger generation that, yes, we can make it to the Olympics, even if we will not become major players. I really do hope that I will be able to work with Elizabeth on freestyle skiing in Hungary. Because today she’s the only one.”
On Tuesday, he sent Swaney an email of encouragement and appreciation. He had met her in Budapest and grew to like her. She was intelligent, he said, and kind. Her performance did not represent what he hoped for Hungary’s freestyle skiing debut, but she did.
It’s in how Swaney sees the Olympics: as a place where athletes of all kinds can coexist without impugning the Games’ integrity. She can do her best, no matter what her best is, and so can Emoke Szocs, 32 years old, from the Transylvania region of Romania, where she learned to cross-country ski even as her mother implored her to focus on education over sports. “Emoke had to train in secret,” Swaney said. “That’s amazing. I never would’ve had that drive to train in secret as a child. It was brilliant.”
When Szocs lost her spot on the Romanian national team, she petitioned to represent Hungary. She finished 77th of 90 competitors in the 10-kilometer cross-country skiing race, more than six minutes behind the winner. Swaney was in the stands cheering for her.
She spends most of her time attending events or in the dining hall or meeting with fellow Christians at Athletes in Action meetings or updating social media profiles or watching old friends on TV. She has known Brendan “Bubba” Newby for more than half a decade. He grew up in Park City, saw Swaney driving her old, beat-up tan car into the parking lot, heard the stories about how when she was on the road for World Cup events with other skiers their hotel room would suddenly get blazing hot. “Liz!” someone would yell, and she’d scurry away, sorry that she’d gone overboard with the thermostat.
Newby, 21, was skiing for Ireland, where he was born. He launched himself off the pipe, his long, blonde hair as stylish as his run until he crashed on his second time through. He finished 22nd. Only a dozen advanced to the finals Wednesday. He knew Swaney would be thinking of him.
“Every time, without fail, at the end of my run, no matter how I did,” Newby said, “she’ll come and congratulate me and tell me I skied well.”
Little did he realize a minute earlier, Swaney had texted me. It said: “Bubba had sweet tricks and was so stoked!”
Around 10 a.m. Tuesday, a slight woman wearing a gray hoodie on top of a red hoodie, both pulled tight over her blond hair, walked into the restricted area where members of the halfpipe skiing competition mingled with coaches before the finals. Liz Swaney was alone. She didn’t talk with anyone. She just watched, listened.
Some figured she wouldn’t show up, not after what happened Monday, which shows how few in the community really know her, because of course she’d be there to see the competition that was supposed to be hers. They didn’t understand. Swaney’s whole life built toward this. Not just the dream. This was the lessons learned from her other quests, the waste from lost moments recycled into something tangible. This was the biggest thing she ever tried to do, and she did it.
“I feel like this Olympic community is just something very special and unique, and everyone I talk to is so happy all the time,” Swaney said. “But I don’t think it has to be a special or unique thing. I’d love the whole world to be like that and more people to be happy and receptive and motivating one another to do their best.”
Those who do know Swaney aren’t sure why she is how she is, what exactly allows her to see the world from such a perspective. She just is. She will post a video of herself ski jumping into water and rollerblading with cheesy video-game music and share it to the world. She will say something with a straight face, get a cocked eyebrow in return and not recoil at the body language, because it’s not one at which she’s altogether adept. And how enviable, the ability to disconnect from the typical frailties, to face fears tangible, like falling in a halfpipe, instead of what people might say or think. Her mind is her gift, and it imagined the run now ingrained in others’.
“She’s got this energy and authenticity, and some people will take that the wrong way, take advantage of her,” Tom said. “And that’ll be throughout her lifetime. But that’s her personality. You’ve got the kernel of your personality. Even if she tried the hardest she could, she can’t change that.”
Tom hasn’t spoken with his daughter much recently. He didn’t want to bother her during the Olympics, and when he tried calling they ran into some phone troubles. So after her runs, he sent her a text message. There were no words. Just an emoji.
It was a gold medal.
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