Here’s what Elizabeth Swaney was like during her Harvard days, according to her mentor
The world may know Elizabeth Swaney as the US-born freestyle skier who seemingly gamed the system to compete in the Olympics for Hungary, her grandparents’ homeland.
But before her simplistic half-pipe run went viral, she was known as a standout Harvard grad student with a bright and bubbly personality and a determination to succeed, according to her mentor.
Swaney, 33, has become a household name after completing a seemingly uncomplicated run devoid of gravity-defying tricks on Monday. She finished dead last in the 24-woman field, and though she took a roundabout way to the Olympics that was legal by the rule book, her performance appeared to split viewers into two camps: Those who thought she was disrespectful of the Games, and those who thought her quixotic tale spoke to the virtue of perseverance.
“I actually always try to give my best in the halfpipe,” she told “Today” hosts Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on Wednesday. “I’m always trying to work on my skiing.”
To Rick Peiser, a Harvard professor who mentored Swaney as she worked toward her master’s degree in real estate development from 2007 to 2009, it was both surprising — and not surprising — that she ended up in the Olympics.
He knew Swaney to compete in a different sport: Skeleton, which is similar to luge — except athletes plunge forward on the course head-first.
When Peiser saw Swaney’s name associated with the PyeongChang Olympics, “I thought, ‘Oh, it can’t be her competing.’”
Turns out, it was.
Peiser, who did not see Swaney’s Olympic qualifier run this week, has periodically kept in touch with his former student. He even went skiing with her when he was in Utah a few years ago for a conference, and vividly remembers Swaney zipping down the most difficult triple-diamond level trails.
“Elizabeth was skating down those as though they were green runs,” he said, noting that at the time, he had no idea she wanted to be an Olympic skier.
“She’s very motivated, and did very well,” he said.
“Motivated” could certainly be one word used to describe Swaney. She ran for governor as a 19-year-old; tried out for the Oakland Raiders cheerleading team; and previously mounted a push to reach the Olympics as a skeleton racer for her mother’s native Venezuela. She started skiing just eight years ago, and only became serious about it after the skeleton thing didn’t take.
Even her LinkedIn profile lists enough extra-curriculars to make “Rushmore” protagonist Max Fischer blush. She was the coxswain of the men’s crew team at the University of California-Berkeley, a volunteer assistant coach for Harvard track and field, and has held leadership positions for both University of California and Harvard alumni groups in Utah. She has held jobs in several fields — as an associate at a commercial real estate group, a weather host and production assistant at a local TV station in Utah, and a hiking guide and ski instructor in Park City. Most recently, she holds a job as a technical recruiter at Thumbtack.
When asked what Swaney’s personality was like — does she seem, for example, like the type of person who simply can’t bear to sit still? — Peiser laughed in agreement.
“She’s a delightful student,” he said. “She was well-liked by her peers, and she was one of the guys.”
Wait. One of the guys?
“When she was here, there was only one other girl in her class,” Peiser explained, noting that Swaney’s graduating class was very selective and totaled just 15 students.
“She has a bubbly personality; she’s an extrovert. She was friendly, and I think she was one of the students who the other students particularly liked,” he said.
However, after her Olympic run, some people weren’t exactly fond of Swaney. After her performance went viral, some viewers criticized her simplistic half-pipe routine.
To qualify for the Olympic freeski half-pipe competition, an athlete must consistently finish in the top 30 of World Cup events. The thing is, there are rarely 30 entries in those events, so Swaney was always able to make the cut.
Due to a combination of injuries, limits on how many athletes can qualify from one country, and a Hungarian team rule that reallocates some spots on the Olympic team to balance the number of men and women, Swaney made Hungary’s team.
She also seemed indignant over criticism of her run, telling Guthrie and Kotb: “I actually did three tricks my second run: Two alley-oops — one on the left wall, one on the right wall — and a 360 at the end, riding switch-out. So it’s a little strange to hear that I did one trick or zero tricks.”
However, Swaney acknowledged that she’s not quite at the level of her fellow competitors yet.
“I can understand where people are coming from. At the same time, I’m always trying to do my best,” she said. “I never had a plan to do the run I did. I wanted to do more than that.”
As for the critics?
“I try to take every comment, whether it’s positive or negative, and build it into my life as something constructive I can work on, so I thank them for their time.”
Nora Princiotti of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Wire material from the Associated Press was used in this report.