PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Elizabeth Swaney finished 24th and last in qualification for the women’s ski halfpipe final on Monday, but the 33-year-old will leave Pyeongchang having achieved exactly what she wanted — to compete at an Olympic Games.
Swaney, born and raised in the United States but representing Hungary, finished bottom of the standings after laying down two basic runs that left her more than 40 points behind the 12th-placed qualifier for the final.
Although she completed both runs without falling, Swaney did not attempt a trick any more advanced than an alley-oop — when a skier rotates 180 degrees or more in the uphill direction — on her way to scores of 30.00 and 31.40.
Swaney’s best score still left her 13.60 points behind 23rd-placed Dane Laila Friis-Salling, who slipped on both runs.
Despite appearing to only be interested in completing her runs safely while not attempting to score points or qualify for the final, Swaney still managed to sound downbeat about her performance.
“I didn’t qualify for the finals, so I’m really disappointed with that. But I worked really for several years to achieve this,” Swaney replied when asked about her emotions after competing at an Olympics.
“I have been focussing on my Olympic experience but also on the halfpipe here and trying to go higher each time and getting more spins in.”
Swaney says she qualified to represent Hungary through her maternal grandparents after previously competing for Venezuela in other winter sports before switching her allegiance again in 2016 to prepare for Pyeongchang.
A Harvard graduate who once ran against Arnold Schwarzenegger in the race to be California governor, Swaney only started skiing at 25 and has been driven ever since in her quest to compete at an Olympics.
After raising funds through online donation websites to help fuel her Olympic ambitions, Swaney managed to qualify for Pyeongchang due to the sheer volume of competitions she attended.
Needing to consistently finish in the top 30 at World Cup events to make it to South Korea, Swaney has persisted with easy runs, sometimes not even attempting tricks, to make sure she does not fall and always records a score.
Her best finish came at Secret Garden in China when she finished 13th out of 15 athletes while a majority of her Olympic rivals were competing in the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain or on the Dew Tour.
However, Swaney still hopes to inspire others who might be intimidated by the prospect of skiing up and down the steep walls of the halfpipe.
“It is an honour to compete at the Olympics and I am really excited to compete among other amazing women from across the world,” Swaney said.
“I want to show others that freestyle skiing is possible and it is never too late to get into this sport, and to help others to dream and to progress the sport in Hungary.
“I hope this can be a platform to inspire others.”
If the watching fans and media were left bemused by Swaney’s runs, her competitors were more supportive of her presence at the Olympics.
“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,” said Canada’s Cassie Sharpe, who qualified in first place with the two highest-scoring runs.
France’s Marie Martinod, who qualified in second, said she had no ill-feelings towards Swaney for her participation.
“I am a super open-minded person,” she said. “This is why the Olympics are so special.”
Swaney’s performances may have disgruntled some but she was unconcerned by any negativity towards her intentions.
“(People doubting me) actually motivates me to improve more,” she added. “I worked really hard to come here and there are only 24 women in the world that could be in this final. So I use this as motivation.”
Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by John O'Brien