Elizabeth Swaney Interview | We Talk To The Olympic Halfpipe Skier Who Doesn't Do Tricks
Swaney's efforts at Pyeongchang 2018 went viral for all the wrong reasons
Death, taxes, and athletes so mediocre in their chosen field that they overshadow virtually everyone else at the Olympic Games; in life, only these three things are inevitable.
It all started, of course, with British ski jumper 'Eddie the Eagle' at Calgary 1988. Then there was Equatorial Guinea swimmer 'Eric The Eel' at Sydney 2000. And now, now there's the story of Californian halfpipe skier Elizabeth Swaney representing the nation of Hungary at Pyeongchang 2018.
They say history is written by the victors, but is it really? Everyone remembers Michael Edwards (aka 'Eddie The Eagle') effectively falling from the ski jump like a wounded pigeon, but does anyone outside core ski jump circles really remember the name of the man who scooped all the golds that year. Answer: it was Finland's Matti Nykänen - a man widely considered to be the greatest ski jumper of all time.
"I'm just so honoured and proud and excited to be an Olympian"
If you missed Elizabeth Swaney's halfpipe efforts in South Korea, you missed someone ripping up the freestyle skiing rulebook by laying down runs that essentially offered nothing in the way of tricks. From one side to the other, and then back again she went. There was an alley-oop, where the skier rotates 180 degrees or more in the uphill direction, and a revert to switch on the way out but that was basically it.
What with this being 2018, and a time of viral banter, there was a certain predictability to the way Liz's performance took over the internet. Some people enjoyed the "it's not the winning, it's the taking part" nature of it and felt it was in keeping with the Olympic spirit. Others, meanwhile, said it made a complete mockery of the event and that Swaney's "gaming" of the system to qualify had meant a more talented female halfpipe skier had missed out. With everyone talking about her, and making their own assumptions, I decided to make contact.
"I'm just so honoured and proud, and excited to be an Olympian. And to be amongst so many amazing athletes at the Olympic village, as well as competing, has been a great experience," Liz tells me over Skype.
When I ask Liz, who is eligible to represent Hungary through her mother, about the build-up to Pyeongchang she says "I was really nervous in the days leading up to that event because I kind of just lost my coach right before the Olympics so I was really nervous for that whole week coming in. And that was really hard. But I tried to do my best and to represent Hungary well. I wanted to bring some freestyle representation to them on the world stage.
"I'd been sharing my coach on the world cup tour with another athlete from another country. And then that country said 'we'd really like for you to not coach anyone else, just coach our athlete,' so he had to only coach that other athlete for the games. It was definitely hard for me to take but I appreciated all his help leading up to the games, and he texted me words of support here and there so that definitely helped."
Whatever one might say about her skiing ability, and people have said a lot, after chatting with Liz it's impossible to deny the enthusiasm she so clearly feels for sporting events on a global stage. She has previously competed for Venezuela in international skeleton competitions.
"I was watching the Olympics when I was really young, probably aged about seven. I think I've wanted to be an Olympian ever since that time. It's been a lifetime goal," Liz tells me.
"Every single woman I have talked to in freestyle ski halfpipe has been supportive"
A quick look at the comments on her Instagram profile reveal the sheer scale of negativity that's been sent her way. User Ryan Pestano wrote "Your a disgrace to the world and a waste of oxygen." Another user @knoflookbreath commented on a photo with: "I don't know how you look yourself in the mirror everyday and see anything but shame. Karma will get you."
Despite the huge backlash to her performance, Liz remains surprisingly upbeat about it all.
"I've seen positive and critical notes in the media, as well as positive and critical comments on social media," Liz says, when I ask her about dividing opinion.View on Instagram
"I honestly appreciate everyone's views no matter what angle they're coming from but the way I see it is that the women I competed with, and every single woman I have talked to in freestyle ski halfpipe has been supportive. I read their comments and think 'OK, if they're responding like this that's great.' That response, I hope, should encourage people to get involved in sport."
With the Hungarian Olympic body reportedly 'rethinking' their selection process, and all of the personal effort and finances involved (Liz is about 90% self-funded with the rest coming from friends, family, and donations), I was curious to know if she had plans to do another Olympics or whether once was enough for her.
"That's a good question," she says. "I was just trying so hard to make this Olympics that I really haven't had too much time to even think about tomorrow. I'm just trying to take it day by day and see what happens."
“I would say that skiing is my main job"
Even if you put the Olympic halfpipe skiing for Hungary and representing Venezuela in international skeleton competition stuff to one side, it only takes a brief bit of internet browsing to realise that Liz is a pretty eccentric character who's done some pretty eccentric things in her life. Liz, for example, a Berkeley graduate who's majored in political science, once ran against Arnold "The Terminator" Schwarzenegger to be Governor of California. She's also attempted to be a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders.
"Politics was definitely very important for me at that time in my life," she says, before adding "There were like maybe between 150 and 200 candidates. I'm not really sure what I was thinking at age 19 but I know that I was trying to look for opportunities and it just seemed like a fun thing to do at the time."
Coming away from my chat with Liz, I get the impression that she's a bit of a 'you-only-live-once' (#YOLO) person; an individual who'll have a big, mad, idea and then follow it through to its endgame no matter how ridiculously far-fetched it was in the first place.
Before talking to her, I'd been intrigued to see how Liz saw herself professionally as I figured this might reveal the seriousness with which she took her own Olympic appearance. Had it all been a bit of a laugh, a side project that had got out of hand, or did she consider herself to be a credible halfpipe skier? Her answer proved telling.
"I would say that skiing is my main job and I'm very much focusing on that."