Ever watched the Winter Olympics and thought ‘I could do that’? Honestly, we all have, but it’s rarely said with any conviction given the talent required to compete in the Games whether it be soaring through the skies in the snowboard Big Air competition or hurtling down the bobsleigh run at 80mph with your face scraping the ice beneath millimetres beneath you.
But in Elizabeth Swaney, an American skier competing for Hungary in Pyeongchang, the public suddenly have a new hero that has proven anyone can achieve their dream if they go about the right way of reaching it.
The 33-year-old finished Monday’s ski halfpipe qualifiers in last, and it was the sight of her rocking back and forth on the snow, not performing any tricks and achieving minimal air off the ramp, that captured the eye of those watching.
Was this the wrong person? Had Swaney been replaced at short notice by a complete stranger who had never skied before and everyone forgot to tell the commentators?
No, it was Swaney alright. She reached the 2018 Winter Olympics through a combination of cunning, awareness and exploitation of a sheer lack of female halfpipe skiers. Qualification for the Olympics involves achieving a certain number of top-30 World Cup finishes, and Swaney ensured she achieved 13 of them by simply turning up and competing at events where there were fewer than 30 athletes competing.
Despite finishing in an unsurprising last place on Monday and failing to reach Tuesday's final, Swaney quickly became an overnight social media sensation, as you can see below.
In every event, Swaney finished either last or within a couple of places of last. At last December’s World Cup in China, a depleted field allowed Swaney to finish 13th out of 15 competitors due to the sport’s biggest names competing at the Grand Prix at Copper Mountain and the Dew Tour at Breckenridge. By ensuring that she did not crash, Swaney achieved enough finishes to qualify for the Olympics and have her moment in the limelight.
Becoming the first person to represent Hungary in skiing, Swaney hopes that her presence in Pyeongchang will help inspire a new generation. “I want to inspire others in Hungary and the world to become involved in freestyle skiing,” she said. “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.”
But she could be the first and last to exploit the qualification system in such a way. FIS ski halfpipe judge Steele Spence has confirmed that plans are already in place to alter the qualification process, and while Swaney would not have made the Games had she crashed, the bar set for athletes to compete at the Winter Olympics looks set to be raised.
“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,” said Spence. “She would compete in them consistently over the last couple years and sometimes girls would crash so she would not end up dead last. There are going to be changes to World Cup quotas and qualifying to be eligible for the Olympics. Those things are in the works so technically you need to qualify up through the system.”
The head judge of the freeskiing competitions in Pyeongchang, Philippe Belanger, added: “We will make the points a bit higher. So in that case you are going to need a better placement in each World Cup, to not just make it to the Games but to stay on the World Cup circuit.”
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