US-born Hungarian halfpipe skier Elizabeth Swaney has finished dead last in qualifying heats at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, after laying down two curiously safe runs which included no trick more complex than a gentle 180 degree spin.
But the story of her appearance at the Games is somehow even more baffling than her seemingly out-of-place performance.
The 33-year-old athlete recorded scored of 30.00 and 31.40 during her two runs, which left commentators struggling for the words to describe her descent.
That score put her 13.60 points behind 23rd-place Danish competitor Dane Laila Friis-Salling, who fell during both of her runs, and more than 40 points away from the qualification cut-off point reached by the 12th-place competitor.
Regardless, the story behind that decidedly average performance is anything but. Reuters reports Swaney, who is actually a Harvard grad and Silicon Valley type in her day-to-day life, simply harboured a dream to compete at the Olympics – no matter what obstacles (or lack of elite talent) stood in her way.
Swaney started skiing at age 25, far later than the majority of the life-long athletes present at the Games. Seeing as the American team is absolutely stacked with world-class skiers, she initially chose to represent her mother’s native Venezuela, a nation not exactly known for its wealth of alpine resources.
She swapped allegiances to Hungary in 2016 thanks to her maternal grandparents’ heritage, and began the arduous process of actually qualifying for Pyeongchang. To do so, Swaney had to consistently finish in the top 30 at a series of legitimate World Cup events.
Faced with meagre skiing talents compared to her elite foes, Swaney adopted her very gentle approach to the halfpipe in the hopes more daring competitors would absolutely stack it. She also selectively entered less-prestigious World Cup events that stronger competitors may have skipped entirely.
In her short career, Swaney has competed in the US, Italy, France, South Korea, Canada and New Zealand. Her career-best placing was 13th in a field of 15 at a meet in China. At the very same time, a considerable chunk of the world’s best were competing back in America.
Speaking to the Denver Post, International Ski Federation judge Steele Spence mused “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.
“She would compete in them consistently over the last couple years and sometimes girls would crash so she would not end up dead last.”
After supplementing her travel and training expenses with extra funds from a crowdfunding campaign, Swaney finally did it: she qualified for the women’s halfpipe at the Winter Olympics. And she was eliminated the exact same way she qualified: with a totally unremarkable jaunt down the mountain.
Despite showing only the most basic level of skill in the event, Swaney said she was “really disappointed” by not qualifying for the final.
“But I worked really for several years to achieve this,” she added.
“I want to show others that freestyle skiing is possible and it is never too late to get into this sport, and to help others to dream and to progress the sport in Hungary.”
Not everyone is buying it. A quick look at her Instagram reveals Hungarians aren’t exactly stoked on the whole ordeal, and some are even calling for her to repay the taxpayer-funded trip to South Korea.
Spence speculates that rules will be changed to require more than just the rampant accumulation of minimum scores to qualify for the 2022, but until then, we’ve been given a classic Olympic story. Swaney has proven that with enough grit, determination, and an absolutely incredible amount of money, you too could compete at sport’s highest levels.