Through hard work and a series of gaping loopholes, Elizabeth Swaney managed to qualify for the Hungarian Olympic ski team despite having little skiing ability. When she coasted down the half pipe earlier this week and did no tricks, confused people everywhere hailed her as either the grifter of all grifters, or as someone who inspiringly took advantage of bad rules to live their dream.
It turned out her Olympic appearance had been fully earnest; Swaney is from a wealthy family in California and had dedicated the last 10 years of her life to expensive training and travel—and multiple nationality changes—in order to find some way, somehow to qualify for the Olympics. Her social media had been bombarded with critical comments from people asking if she was merely privileged enough to buy her way into the Olympics.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports published a profile on Swaney, scolding people for chuckling at the 33-year-old, who he wrote, was “incapable of pretense and façade.” Passan quoted a friend of Swaney’s who said:
“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.”
Swaney’s father, Tom, told Passan:
“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.”
In an attempt to better understand Elizabeth Swaney and her Olympic journey, Deadspin spoke to Tom Swaney, who shared the following thoughts.
On speculation that Elizabeth is on the autism spectrum:
Not that we know of. Someone breached that issue of her doing something because she doesn’t understand the world in the normal sense. Yeah, she’s a pretty accomplished person, look at her resume.
Some people do things that are lower probability and are not guaranteed success. I worked in the business world with start up companies and venture capital and so forth. There are ultimately billion-dollar venture capital firms that are going to be wrong 80 or 90 percent of the time; those investments that they made are the entrepreneurs who tried and failed. For every Microsoft or Apple, there are 99 other companies that didn’t make it. So you have to have that mindset that you can succeed.
Elizabeth, I admired her at an early age because she was such a hard worker. She’s active 18 hours a day 7 days a week. That kind of energy and perseverance—[Passan] asked me, “When did you first realize that she had an ability—or just the perseverance?”—and I’m not sure if I have the exact years right but she was taking algebra in junior high and she wasn’t doing that well so she came home and asked, “Can I take tutoring to improve algebra?” I’m not saying she’s the only person who’s ever done that, but I think it’s relatively rare for a child to try to get better at something that’s not a fun subject.
As far as the spectrum, I don’t think—I don’t know what schools do—but she’s never been diagnosed or anything like that, that hasn’t even been on the table.
On why some people feel that Elizabeth’s Olympics appearance shouldn’t be glorified:
I understand the frustration. I know there were two or three American women athletes who were quoted out about it and I understand their frustration on a personal basis.
But a couple things overall is that Elizabeth didn’t do anything wrong. She worked within the existing rules and regulations, maybe you can make a point that they should be changed—the quota system that means less athletes from certain countries who have more talent. Given the rules and regulations, no one really got harmed by Elizabeth going to the Olympics. If Elizabeth didn’t go, they would have brought in the 28th-ranked person. I think that’s important. When there is a problem, a complication, a gripe, you have to ask who was harmed in this thing? No one was harmed.
Maybe you can bicker and complain about the rules and regulations being changed. But she had a goal and she worked on it and she achieved it.
It’s been a few people online, using words like “delusional” or what have you but she tries things that other people would not do. That’s a part of the story we’re missing in modern society, try things that are hard to achieve or beyond your scope. Another thing was her running for governor at age 19. Is that a good or bad thing? She was reaching for the stars and some people say, well, that’s not feasible. Maybe doing things that have a low probability of success, maybe we as a society should honor that. For every scientific discovery, I’m sure there were a lot of failures in the lab. I know that we as a modern society like to speculate and so forth but I think sometimes the bigger picture is missing. The emphasis has been on what’s wrong with this story and what’s wrong with the person.
Anybody there had to put a lot of effort into it. Sure, she was in last place and so forth but I bet few, in fact any, people I my life are as active as she is, 18 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m her father so I put a positive spin on it of course. I love her as a daughter but I admire her as well. She is unusual in the sense in that she would do what the majority of people would not do.
So I think there are a few valid complainers, like the young American women, but other than that I don’t see a lot to whine and complain about. You can’t blame a person for really understanding how to achiever her goal and doing it. Armchair couch-potato negativity I think is a problem in the western world and here in the United States.
On how chasing your dreams is sometimes only feasible for people with means:
Let me address that: First of all, you can always say, well gee, maybe if I was born bigger or stronger or in this city or had this teacher or that parent—but as far as the Olympics, not saying this is Elizabeth, but if you’re a great athlete chances are by the time you’re 12, 13, you’re going to be supported by the U.S. Olympic committee. Elizabeth didn’t have that talent, but there are people who have disadvantages or advantages.
She worked at a lot of jobs. She went without buying a new car or going on vacation or buying fancy clothes or going clubbing three nights a week. She spent her money on this goal and I know that’s not something most people would have wanted to do. Is that privilege? Is that a privilege people didn’t have, you could always say, sure this person had that advantage, that person had that advantage. She was working two or three jobs at one point. Is that a decision everyone would have made? She had to pay her coaches and for training and all that. Again, you could look at it negatively, she had these advantages, but I don’t think the majority would have worked two or three jobs, be active 18 hours a day to achieve the goals. People want to negate someone else’s lifestyle, instead of how mentally or physically tough someone is.
On the financial support he gave Elizabeth:
Yeah, we did pay, over the course of the years, starting in 2007, 2008, approximately 10 years. I haven’t worked it out on a calculator or put pencil to paper, but I would say her parents contributed maybe 20 or 30 percent of her expenses. She’s worked for a long time now, she has a pretty good salary working for a tech company in San Francisco. So we did contribute, we helped, again, she had use of resources and this is how she allotted it. Some people would be going clubbing with that and some people wouldn’t.
CNBC just published parts of an interview with Swaney, in which she says she’s got the chops to compete on an elite level of skiing—just not on snow.
“On the ski water ramps, I do do 720s, 540s, 360s, front flips, and backflips, so I have all the skills that I need to be a great competitor the World Cup level, I just haven’t been comfortable enough yet to land those trick on snow.”