The Olympic halfpipe competitions are typically saturated with impossible flips, rapid spins, and jumps that find you holding your breath until athletes land safely back on the snow. At least, that's when you're watching most professional skiers and snowboarders — unless you're Olympic freestyle skier Elizabeth Swaney, who performed no tricks at all during the women's freestyle qualifier on Monday, save for a single 180.
Representing Hungary at PyeongChang, the American-born athlete has developed a reputation for traversing the freestyle course doing what one user on Twitter described as "the bare minimum." But Swaney, for her part, appears undeterred by critics.
"I’m just trying to do the best for myself and represent Hungary as best as I can," Swaney told The Denver Post on Sunday. "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."
How, exactly, Swaney became an athlete at the 2018 Winter Games is a story of liberal skiing qualifications and precise decision-making. Reportedly a freestyle skier since 2013, Swaney graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a degree in political economy, German language, and political science, according to a 2018 PyeongChang Games profile. She also holds a master's degree in real estate studies from Harvard. She began skiing at the age of 25.
Unable to qualify for the competitive U.S. team, Swaney reportedly elected to try to qualify under the Hungarian flag, which she says she was eligible for because of her grandparents. From there, it was a matter of strategically enrolling in the right World Cup competitions.
"The field is not that deep in the women’s pipe and she went to every World Cup where there were only 24, 25, or 28 women,” International Ski Federation (FIS) ski halfpipe and slopestyle judge Steele Spence told the Post. "She would compete in them consistently over the last couple years and sometimes girls would crash so she would not end up dead last."
Swaney officially qualified for the Olympics in December, after coming in 13th out of 15 skiers at a competition China. According to Reuters, many of the world's most elite skiers were competing elsewhere at the time, either at the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain or on the Dew Tour 2017.
Reception to Swaney's showing on Monday varied. For every critic on Twitter, there appeared to be another user willing to defend both her chops and her determination.
"To those who are [criticizing] @ElizabethSwaney freeskiing at the Olympics: at least she is there, competing, while you are only sitting in front of your screens," tweeted user Zsófi M. Similarly, user @rachellauren66 wrote, "@ElizabethSwaney your half pipe today was so sweet it made my day ♥️."
Some of Swaney's fellow Olympic skiers have also offered support. "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," first place qualifier Cassie Sharpe, representing Canada, told Reuters.
However, Spence told the Post that the Swaney phenomenon will likely lead to changes in how freestyle skiing qualifications are implemented. "There are going to be changes to World Cup quotas and qualifying to be eligible for the Olympics," he told the Colorado paper. "Those things are in the works so technically you need to qualify up through the system."
But while there are those who would prefer not to see a more average athlete make it into the elite international games, Swaney told various media outlets that she was living out her dream.
"It is an honor to compete at the Olympics and I am really excited to compete among other amazing women from across the world," she said, according to Reuters. It's too soon to say whether or not Swaney will make it to a second Winter Games, but in the meantime, she seems to be having a ball.
Correction: A previous headline misspelled Elizabeth Swaney's name. It has been updated.