Winter Olympics: Bad skier games system to reach PyeongChang

Kevin Kaduk
Yahoo Sports
Elizabeth Swaney competes in the ladies halfpipe on Monday. (Getty Images)
Elizabeth Swaney competes in the ladies halfpipe on Monday. (Getty Images)

Let’s not beat around the bush: Elizabeth Swaney is not a good freestyle skier. She can’t do any tricks, can’t get any air, can’t do anything but go up and down the halfpipe like anyone at the local bunny hill might.

And yet there Swaney was on Monday, one of 24 skiers competing in the qualifiers of the ladies’ halfpipe at the Winter Olympics. While three fellow American citizens placed among the top six qualifiers, the 33-year-old Swaney placed dead last while competing for Hungary and won’t participate in Tuesday’s final.

On the bright side, she didn’t crash, the announcers were polite toward her during her stunt and she didn’t experience a wardrobe malfunction.

Seriously, you HAVE to watch this:

The odd sight of Swaney’s pedestrian performance was the end to a quixotic quest that raised questions of whether someone with inferior credentials should be allowed to game the system to become an Olympian.

Does Swaney’s bid highlight the joy of Olympic participation or is it an affront to the world-class skiers that share a stage with her?

A quick look at Swaney’s social media accounts reveals people on both sides:

So how did Swaney find herself in that halfpipe?

Well, if showing up is 80 percent of life, showing up for ladies’ halfpipe qualifiers must be at least 80 percent when it comes to making the Olympics.

As Jason Blevins of the Denver Post explains, the international field for ladies’ halfpipe is not exceedingly deep. Qualifying for the Olympics involves recording a certain number of top-30 finishes in qualifying events and many of these events don’t even feature 30 people.

So Swaney burned up the globe, attending qualifiers in places like China, South Korea, Italy, Canada and New Zealand. After initially representing Venezuela in these events, Swaney claimed Hungarian ties through her grandparents. And thanks to a system of quotas, she eventually qualified for the Olympics, despite never attempting a single trick above the deck.  Her best finish was 13th out of 15 competitors in China when most of the good freestyle skiers were competing at the same time in the United States.

“She would compete in them consistently over the last couple years and sometimes girls would crash so she would not end up dead last,” FIS judge Steele Spence told the Denver Post. “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.”


Swaney is an interesting character. She graduated from Cal-Berkeley where she was on the crew team and tried to run for governor against Arnold Schwarzenegger when she was only 19 years old.  She later went to Harvard for a graduate degree in design and works in the Bay Area as a recruiter for software engineers.

While she attempted to crowdfund for her Olympic experience, efforts on GoFundMe and RallyMe raised a total of zero dollars. And yet she found her way to South Korea anyway.

The most natural parallels to Swaney are Mexico’s German Madrazo and Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua. Neither had a great deal of experience with cross-country skiing but drew cheers after completing the course waaay behind the winners last week. It’s hard to slam Swaney while Madrazo and Taufatofua are being celebrated for their efforts across the globe.

Swaney, of course, found both men and took a picture with the fellow kindred spirits

So how are we supposed to feel about Olympians like Swaney, Madrazo and Taufatofua?

Perhaps our answer comes in the famous quote from Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics.

“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part,” de Coubertin said. “The important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

As for how the other freestyle skiers feel about Swaney? Well, it’s hard to say. None of them would go on the record with the Denver Post for the story, which might tell you they think de Coubertin was full of it.

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