Elizabeth Swaney's journey from figure of fun to unlikely halfpipe hero 

After somehow finding a way to make it to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Elizabeth Swaney was ridiculed for a halfpipe skiing routine in which she didn't perform a single trick. However, as the Olympic community gathered around to offer their support, Swaney was transformed into the most unlikely of Olympic heroes. 

By Sean McAlister
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

What does it mean to be an Olympian?

For some – the smallest minority – it means a chance to fight for medals on the greatest sporting stage of all. However, for many athletes just making it to the Games is a phenomenal achievement, the culmination of a gruelling quest to represent your country underneath the hallowed five rings.

For one Olympian, Elizabeth Swaney, titles or glory were not the final goal. Just reaching the Olympics was enough to fulfil a dream a lifetime in the making.

And when she did step out under the bright lights at PyeongChang 2018, Swaney redefined for many what it means to be an Olympian and found her place as an unlikely sporting hero.

The run that stunned the world

When Cassie Sharpe set about her gold medal-winning halfpipe run at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, she pulled out every trick in her formidable arsenal. When she rounded off her run with a 1080 tailgrab, after a combination of tricks that sometimes saw her rise more than four metres into the air, the 95.80 score she achieved secured her a gold medal and a place in Olympic history. It had been a stunning demonstration of skill, courage and fearlessness from the Canadian.

But earlier in the competition, one freestyle skier had left the crowd speechless for quite another reason. Elizabeth Swaney – born and raised in Oakland, California but representing Hungary – skied slowly up and down the halfpipe without attempting a single trick.

When she finished the run, she punched the air in triumph as her score flashed up on the boards. Not only had Swaney finished last, she had also recorded one of the lowest points totals in Olympic history.

The immediate reaction to Swaney's run was as swift as it was devastating. Ridiculed mercilessly on social media, Swaney became a figure of fun and the subject of anger for those who deemed her "trash", "a disgrace" and everything else in-between.

"Remove Olympian from your bio," one commenter wrote.

However, when gold medallist Sharpe spoke up in her defence, saying “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”, and double Olympic champion David Wise proclaimed that he had been "inspired by her", slowly but surely Swaney transformed into an unlikely Olympic hero.

The story behind the story

No athlete makes it to the Olympic Games without hard work and determination – two qualities Swaney has in abundance.

Her Olympic dream first ignited when she took to the ice after being inspired by Kristi Yamaguchi's gold-winning performance at the Albertville 1992 Games. As she grew older, forays into other Winter Olympic sports followed, including stints training at skeleton and ice hockey. But the goal remained the same. By hook or by crook, Swaney was going to make it the Olympics.

Swaney's first attempt to qualify for the Games was under the colours of her mother's country, Venezuela. She threw herself into training for different Olympic sports with the aim of making it to Sochi 2014 with her singular determination probably best summed up by herself when she stated, “I live my life by Olympic cycles”.

However, Swaney failed to make it to Sochi and in 2016 switched allegiance to the land of her grandparents, Hungary. With focus and determination, she began to plot a way to make it to the 2018 Games.

After switching sports to freestyle skiing, Swaney self-funded her journey to the Olympics, competing at different World Cup events while travelling to far-flung destinations like People's Republic of China, Republic of Korea and Spain to gain the points needed to qualify for the Games - all while working two jobs to achieve her dream.

And while her performances at those qualifying events often saw her finish last, she finally booked her ticket to the Games by finishing enough events in the top 30. Some people thought she was playing the system but Swaney's father, speaking to Yahoo, had a different take on things:

“It’s totally the opposite," he said. "You know, there aren’t a lot of people that way anymore. There’s an earnestness and innocence in modern society you don’t see. She has it.”

The Olympic spirit

After finishing her trick-free runs at PyeongChang 2018 and finishing dead last, Swaney explained what she desired to achieve in her new role as an Olympian: “I really hope to inspire others in Hungary to take up freestyle skiing and I hope that contributes to a greater number of people out there freestyle skiing,” she said.

And as the Olympic community – having seen how hard she had trained to get there and the ridicule she was facing – rallied around this new and unexpected hero, David Wise perhaps summed it up best when he described the different values of the Olympic Games.

“The Olympics has a spirit," he said. "There’s something about going to the Olympic Games. Am I going to criticise her for wanting to be here and represent her country in the Olympics? No. No way. I’m inspired by her in that way."

The Olympics are about sporting excellence – of that there is no doubt. However, the journey of Swaney and the way her fellow Olympians supported her as trolls and naysayers sought to break her, caused the world to remember the other two core values of the Olympics: friendship and respect.

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