Elizabeth Swaney is an Olympian.
Well, wait. Elizabeth Swaney competed in the Olympics.
During this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, a single run in the women’s ski halfpipe competition sparked controversy amongst athletes and spectators alike. The world watched as Elizabeth Swaney, a Hungarian skier, moved steadily down the halfpipe. She’d go up a side, turn, go up the other, turn. There was little air. There weren’t any awe-inspiring flips. The announcers attempted to keep their composure. Swaney posted a score of 31.40, with the next best (an actual skier) posting 45.00. It was amatuer at best, and Swaney is, in fact, an amatuer.
How did a hobbyist skier from the United States make the world’s biggest sporting stage while representing Hungary? Loopholes, baby.
Swaney had always dreamed of competing in the Olympics in some way, but while Olympians trained from adolescence, spending grueling days practicing, she was completing her degree at UC Berkeley and master’s at Harvard. Her Olympic dream continued on. She attempted to compete as a skeleton racer for her mother’s home country of Venezuela years ago. She didn’t make it. Then she found a way to get into the Olympics through her Hungarian descent. Essentially, to qualify for the games you must have a collection of top-thirty wins in your sport. By going to Hungary, Swaney competed in skiing competitions with less than thirty women. Even if she placed last, she was still tallying another qualifier. She held strong, didn’t crash, and worked her way up the boards.
There has been an equal amount of support and hate since her run. Some people have called it her “fifteen seconds of shame.” Some have called her an inspiration. Cassie Sharpe, Canada’s skier that went on to win the halfpipe, said about Swaney, “If you are going to put in the time and effort to be here, then you deserve to be here as much as I do.”
So, is Elizabeth Swaney a disgrace, or is she an inspiration? Let’s be fair; Swaney is not a bad skier. For someone that has only been skiing for eight years, she did well. Riding an Olympic-sized halfpipe is not easy, and she pulled it off with ease.
Swaney is an intelligent woman. She ran against Arnold Schwarzenegger for California Governor, tried out for the Oakland Raiders cheerleading team, was a weather reporter for a Utah news station, a ski instructor and hiking guide in Park City, and she’s currently a software engineer recruiter in Silicon Valley. And now, she’s an Olympic athlete. Elizabeth Swaney is thirty-three years old.
Elizabeth Swaney is no disgrace. She’s a damn American hero.
She had a dream and she went for it. She’s had multiple dreams, but nothing has ever held her back. Swaney found a loophole in the system and exploited it. We’re told from childhood that we can do anything we want if we put in enough effort. This is not true. Some people are just not as physically gifted as others, and will never have a chance to do the things they dream of. But, Swaney did. She found a way. Now, thanks to her, Hungary is going to have to improve their formula. She got to experience the Olympics, something only a tiny fraction of humans get to do, and she did it with wits.
Yes, in the traditional sense of sportsmanship, she’s a fraud. She didn’t train her whole life like the others, but does it really matter? The Olympics leave an economic and environmental wreck behind them, and the International Olympic Committee lightly slaps the wrists of cheating athletes (I’m looking at you, Russia). Elizabeth Swaney outsmarted a committee that has been at the center of the world for centuries, and it’s only one notch on her belt filled with various successes. She’s punk rock, and she’s awesome.
Keep on spinning, Swaney. I can’t wait to see what you pull off next.
Illustration by Hua Chen