There’s a premise built into the structure of the Olympics that pretty much every single Olympian, even those far down the standings, are elite athletes at the top of their game performing at a level most fans could only dream of. Freestyle skier Elizabeth Swaney is an affront to this notion, and her, um, laconic run down the halfpipe is so thoroughly average that it’s an inspiration of sorts.
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The 33-year-old American has been freestyle skiing since 2013 with the single-minded goal of making it to the Olympics. Since the American team is, well, good, she initially competed for her mother’s native Venezuela, before switching her allegiance and representing Hungary, which she was eligible to do because of Hungarian grandparents. Swaney can’t throw a single trick in the halfpipe, and she can barely catch any air to speak of, but that doesn’t matter, since the real competitive portion of her Olympics came before she even traveled to South Korea, as she worked her way onto the team in an effort that was something between a scam and a tale of perseverance.
In order to qualify, Swaney needed to finish within the top 30 at a few World Cup skiing events. After “competing” in halfpipe contests around the world, Swaney finally qualified in December, when she went to a Chinese event while the top skiers in the world were at a more prestigious event in Colorado. She finished 13th out of 15, which has nothing to do with her actually besting anyone, since, once again, she doesn’t even do any tricks. Other people fell or certain events simply featured fewer than 30 competitors, which let her sneak in. That’s her gameplan: show up and stay upright.
Because a few competitors pulled out of the Olympics with injury, because of limits on how many skiers from a single country can compete in the same event, and because of some arcane reallocation rules within the Hungarian ski federation designed to balance men’s and women’s competitors, Swaney got to go do her fake run in Pyeongchang. The Denver Post reported that some actually competitive skiers are less than thrilled with Swaney’s presence at the Games, and they even a got a slopestyle judge to explain exactly how her scam worked.
“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,” said longtime FIS ski halfpipe and slopestyle judge Steele Spence. “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.”
Apparently, rules might tighten and people like Swaney might not get to go to the Olympics. For now, however, she gets to represent Hungary and, as she said, “inspire others in Hungary and the world to become involved in freestyle skiing,” by doing one limp 180.