The Olympic Games bring together athletes from all over the world, of all shapes and sizes and of diverse perspectives, but the thread that binds them is their pursuit of athletic excellence.
Then there came Elizabeth Swaney.
Swaney, American-born, Harvard-educated, and based in San Francisco where she recruits software engineers, competed for Hungary in the women’s freeski halfpipe qualifiers Monday. Though that’s to use the word “compete” loosely.
Swaney doesn’t do any tricks except for the occasional 180, and gets little to no air on each run. Her strategy can be boiled down to this: don’t fall. Despite two clean runs, Swaney came in 24th out of 24 Monday after a performance that was almost masterfully unspectacular. She scored a 31.40 out of 100. Some viewers were not amused by her perceived nonchalance.
“I didn’t qualify for finals so I’m really disappointed,” she said without a hint of irony, according to the Associated Press.
But even if she genuinely was bummed to not advance, Swaney already accomplished a lot by getting to the Olympics. As it turns out, Swaney’s path to PyeongChang is a master class in finessing the Olympic qualifying system that is downright inspirational.
Swaney is 33 and has only been skiing since she was 25. It was then that she set out to make it to the Olympics, but quickly realized that making Team USA would be an uphill battle, to put it lightly. First, Swaney competed for her mother’s native Venezuela before switching to Team Hungary, the country her grandparents are from, in 2016, according to The Denver Post.
To qualify for the Olympic freeski halfpipe 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.
“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,” longtime FIS ski halfpipe and slopestyle judge Steele Spence told the 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.”
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 it.
Swaney wanted to compete in the Olympics, and she made it happen. The rules might be dated and bizarre, but this woman qualified by the book. So what, her run wasn’t the most spectacular, and didn’t look like the others. She still set out to accomplish something and reached that goal. By the way, she still had to ski up a giant wall without falling in order to do so. Doesn’t that count for something without adding in flips and twists with so many components they sound like a Jon Gruden play call? Player hating, last I checked, was generally frowned upon.
As it turns out, Swaney has set lofty goals before. She unsuccessfully opposed Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of California when she was an undergraduate at the University of California Berkeley. She holds a master’s in design studies from Harvard.
So maybe she can’t do them on the pipe. But no one can say Elizabeth Swaney doesn’t try big things.