If you are like me and you spend most of the winter months trekking through traffic to Tahoe to ride an inch of fresh snow, then you know how much the winter games mean. They are a celebration of extreme sports oft forgotten, left to a couple marquee events each year and the mother of them all that comes every fourth.
The halfpipe is the grand daddy of them all, the penultimate display of athleticism, acrobatics and finesse combined into one beautiful showcase. The 2018 Olympics have featured the best of the winter games with future stars like Chloe Kim, Cassie Sharp and Ayumu Hirano pushing their sport to levels previously unseen.
Enter Elizabeth Swaney, Cal alumnus and Bay Area resident who rose to internet fame over the weekend. She participated in the games for Team Hungary, who are not necessarily known for their success in the women’s skiing halfpipe and laid down what now will be one of the more memorable runs in Olympic history.
In the days of going viral and instant celebrity on social media, Liz was a sure fire bet to be a star. A relative newbie to the sport of freestyle skiing (she picked it up when she was 25), Swaney had gone through qualifying rounds placing in the top 30 of events on her way to Pyeongchang. And there she found herself, not only at the Olympic games but in them, as a participant in the women’s skiing halfpipe with relatively no experience other than what she had trained for over the last several years.
So on Saturday, she did what she had been doing. She delivered a run that lacked fireworks but kept her upright and gave her a shot at placing should the rest of the competition fall on their attempts. And then after completing what had to be a top life moment, in a matter of seconds, she became an internet sensation subject to many demeaning headlines and the lead actress in several thousand gifs.
The journalistic and social media worlds then went to work, delivering some of the most inconsiderate headlines ever seen out of an Olympics. CBS Sports referred to her as an American who “scammed her way into the Olympics”, NPR called her an “average skier” and the Independent called her the worst skier in Pyeongchang.
To all of this I take exception. There was nothing average at all with Swaney’s performance and I would dare say the only people who scammed anyone were those publications who failed to find the real story in all of this. This is someone who dedicated their life to the pursuit of a dream to go to an Olympics and not only did so but MADE IT THEIR REALITY. This is the story that all of us should celebrate, the dream of relentless pursuit and accomplishing what everyone around us considers impossible. Yet here we are, participating in a mockery of the story we all claim to yearn for.
For anyone that knows how to ski, you know how intimidating the halfpipe can be. Shifting your body to do a 180 degree turn and then head straight down what feels like a sheer drop is a feeling not many of us get used to. Moreover most of us are used to the halfpipe at your local ski resort, you know the one that has ten to twelve foot high walls. Now imagine being in a halfpipe with 20 foot high walls with a massive stadium audience and the world watching you. Intimidating? Yes. Downright terrifying? Yes.
There is no average skier in the world capable of accomplishing what Elizabeth Swaney did on Saturday. You know why? The average person would have given up after the first few attempts and never even made it to a qualifier. There is no scam artist capable of such a feat. They would have given up after having to work part-time jobs and travel around the world just to simply qualify. And there is no way in hell that the worst skier in all of Pyeongchang is the person who just executed two clean halfpipe runs on the one of the most intimidating stages in the world.
In a world desperately needing feel good stories, those with quick judgments robbed us of a wonderful one. A story that spoke of an athlete determined to reach their goal and changing every aspect of their life to do so. This is what the Olympics are all about and this is what Elizabeth Swaney’s story is about. She deserves to be celebrated, and she deserves a lot more than just that. We should be so lucky to have people in our lives with her level of dedication towards accomplishing what to most seems impossible.