You won’t be seeing her in tonight’s halfpipe final, and you certainly won’t be seeing her at X Games next year.
But the fact remains, Elizabeth Swaney made it to the Olympics and, for one night, captivated – and also confused – a worldwide audience.
First, a little explanation about Olympic qualifying: This year, there were 24 quota spots available for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in women’s ski halfpipe. But those spots don’t automatically go to the best 24 skiers in the world. The maximum number of skiers that each nation can send to the Olympics for women’s halfpipe is four, so a country like the U.S. – which had six skiers ranked inside the top 20 of the Olympic qualification standings – could only send their top four skiers, even though they had more than four athletes who earned quota spots.
So with countries like the U.S. having to forego their extra quota spots, some countries not using all their quota spots, and other athletes pulling out due to injury, the invite list made it all the way down to athlete No. 34 in the rankings: Elizabeth Swaney of Hungary.
Swaney, a 33-year-old from California, is technically American. But she’s able to compete for Hungary because her grandparents are from there. (She originally represented Venezuela when she first started entering World Cup events in 2013, but she began competing for Hungary in 2015.)
The International Ski Federation (FIS), which governs the sport, has minimum requirements for athletes to be eligible for the Olympics. They include finishing in the top 30 at a World Cup event and scoring a minimum number of FIS points.
Swaney met those requirements. The field for women’s halfpipe is not very deep, so many World Cup events had fewer than 30 athletes competing. So as long as she showed up and dropped in for a run, Swaney was guaranteed a top-30 finish and at least a few FIS points.
And that’s exactly what Swaney did. She was able to use very basic runs to get herself into position to qualify for the Olympics. She wouldn’t necessarily attempt any tricks, but she wouldn’t crash either.
“She would compete in [World Cup events] consistently over the last couple years and sometimes girls would crash so she would not end up dead last,” FIS freeski judge Steele Spence explained to the Denver Post.
Which brings us to Swaney’s performance in PyeongChang:
She didn’t clear the lip of the halfpipe. She didn’t grab her tricks. She didn’t spin anything beyond a 180. But she didn’t fall.
Her first run “featured” five straight airs, an alley-oop 180 and then another straight air – the sort of run that you might see from a weekend warrior at your local ski resort’s halfpipe. It scored a 30.0 and placed her 22nd out of 24 skiers.
Swaney cleaned things up enough on her second run to bump her score up to a 31.4, but by then she was firmly in last place.
“I didn’t qualify for the finals, so I’m really disappointed with that,” Swaney said afterward, according to Reuters. “But I worked really hard for several years to achieve this.”
Swaney – whose other notable exploits have included a run for governor of California as a 19-year-old and an attempt to become an Olympic skeleton athlete for Venezuela – insists her motivations are pure and says that she hopes her trip to the Olympics can be an inspiration.
“I want to inspire others in Hungary and the world to become involved in freestyle skiing,” she said, according to the Denver Post. “Maybe perhaps I’m the bridge to those who want to get started in the life of freestyle skiing and I want to show people that, yeah, it’s possible to get involved in freestyle skiing through a variety of backgrounds.”
As for what the other athletes thought of her performance, it’s hard to say. The Denver Post noted that no athletes were willing to go on the record for their story about Swaney, but Cassie Sharpe – the gold medal favorite in women’s halfpipe – told other media outlets that she didn’t have a problem with it.
“If you are going to put in the time and effort to be here,” she said, according to Reuters, “then you deserve to be here as much as I do.”