Five-ring Circus

Olympics Jerk Watch: The Inept Halfpipe Skier Who Loopholed Her Way Into the Games

Elizabeth Marian Swaney of Hungary competes in the Winter Games on Monday in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Elizabeth Marian Swaney of Hungary competes in the Winter Games on Monday in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images.

Name: Elizabeth Marian Swaney

Home country: She’s from the United States, but she skis for Hungary.

Known for: Skiing the halfpipe badly, gaming the Olympics system expertly, making a mockery of things.

Why she might be a jerk: Swaney, a 33-year-old graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard, was the last woman to ski in the first run of Monday’s freestyle skiing halfpipe qualifications. “What can she deliver on here in Pyeongchang?” the commentator asked as she began her run. The answer was soon apparent: She could deliver on nothing. When Swaney first made it to the top of the halfpipe, she got approximately 6 inches of air before heading back down again. A mistimed trick, perhaps? Nope: She did the same thing the next time she hit the top of the pipe. She was “showing the judges she can make it down this halfpipe clean,” the other commentator said.

All in all, Swaney performed zero meaningful tricks, unless you count “tricking the audience” as a trick—which, to be clear, the International Ski Federation (FIS) does not count as a trick. All she did was ski up and down the halfpipe, slowly and carefully. The only flair she showed came at the end of her run, when she skied out of the halfpipe backward. Not very impressive flair!

This performance was not a surprise to anyone who knew Swaney. She has become infamous on the World Cup halfpipe circuit for attending as many events as possible. She performs no tricks. She rarely falls down. She always finishes at or near the bottom of the standings.

How, then, did this pedestrian skier make it into the Olympics? Loopholes! “Women’s pipe skiing World Cups rarely see more than 30 competitors, so it’s not hard to meet the Olympic requirement for a top-30 finish,” writes Jason Blevins of the Denver Post. Swaney, who has aspired since childhood to make it to the Olympics, chose the least popular sport she could find, so that even if she was the absolute worst international competitor, she had a chance to qualify for the games just by showing up at World Cup events. An Olympic berth isn’t supposed to be a perfect attendance award. This is a jerky way of trying to qualify for the Winter Games.

Moreover, given her resolute focus on not falling down, Swaney occasionally finishes ahead of skiers who, in the process of actually trying to do tricks, do fall down. In this manner, she accumulated enough World Cup points to make it to Pyeongchang. (Blevins writes that the FIS is considering changing the qualification rules to “require Olympians to harvest more than the minimum points awarded just for showing up and not falling at World Cup contests.” Good idea, FIS!) It costs a lot of money to travel the world skiing cautiously at World Cup events, so I guess she got her money’s worth, though I’d like to think I could figure out a better thing to splurge on than not doing tricks in a halfpipe.

Finally, Swaney skis for Hungary, even though she was born in the United States. (Her grandparents are apparently from Hungary.) This is another loophole, albeit a relatively common one at the Olympics, and not inherently a jerky one. But consider that in the runup to the 2014 Sochi Games, she used an online crowdfunding platform to try and support her bid to represent Venezuela in either freestyle skiing or skeleton. (Back then, Swaney wrote that her mother was born in Venezuela.) While it isn’t jerky to compete for a country you weren’t born in, it is jerky to shop around for countries that are willing to let you represent them in sports at which you are terrible.

After making it to Pyeongchang, Swaney posed for a photograph with two other Olympic tourists, cross-country skiers German Madrazo of Mexico and Pita Taufatofua, aka the nonjerky Shirtless Tongan. Madrazo finished dead last—116th place—in the men’s 15-kilometer cross-country event; Taufatofua finished in 114th place. (The 115th-place finisher, Sebastian Uprimny, must have been the one who took the photo.) Speaking strictly in terms of their relative ability, these two guys also had no business skiing in the Olympics. But they at least had the common decency to choose a sport in which their badness wasn’t going to make a mockery of the entire enterprise. If you don’t know how to ski in a halfpipe, it’s obvious to everyone who is watching. But all Madrazo and Taufatofua needed to do was make it through a cross-country course without quitting or dying, and they fulfilled those requirements. They did it slowly, but they did it, and they tried hard. Swaney did not try hard! She did the opposite of trying hard!

I’ve seen a few people compare Swaney to the famed Olympic ski jumping tourist Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards. That comparison is inane. Edwards, for all his fabled incompetence at ski jumping, set the British world record at the 1988 Calgary Games. Moreover, Edwards actually jumped off the ski jump, which is an inherently dangerous act that requires significant courage to attempt. He didn’t mosey his way down to the edge of the ramp and then politely call for a ladder, as Swaney might have done.

Also, as a 19-year-old student at UC–Berkeley, Swaney attempted to run for governor of California in the recall election that saw Arnold Schwarzenegger elected, but did not make the ballot. She listed her profession as “ice cream business owner.” I’m guessing her ice cream business sold 101 flavors, all of which were vanilla. She probably entered all those vanillas into the World Cup of Ice Cream, then made it into the Ice Cream Olympics (representing Botswana) because she didn’t spill any ice cream on the floor, but then went out in the first round of the Ice Cream Games after she gave the judges a scoop of vanilla with no toppings.

Why she might not be a jerk: If I’m making a list of the world’s top 1,000 jerkiest behaviors, “being extremely bad at skiing in a halfpipe” is probably going to come in at around … 842. I’ve seen a lot jerkier.

That video of Swaney meandering up and down the halfpipe in the least extreme manner imaginable is also very funny, and that has to count for something. There aren’t very many humorous moments at the Olympics, and I guess Swaney deserves minor credit for giving us all a good laugh. A true jerk would laugh at you as she skied cautiously up and down the halfpipe.

I am confident Swaney was not laughing at us, as laughing on the halfpipe might have increased her chances of falling down.

Also, look, the FIS World Cup system exists, and it’s not Swaney’s fault that its rules are what they are. Gaming the World Cup system isn’t an inherently jerky act. If FIS doesn’t want people like Swaney halfhearting their way to the Olympics, it should change the rules. I have no problem with gaming the system to attend the Olympics. But! The jerkiness comes in when, after making it to the world’s biggest stage, you don’t even bother to attempt a single trick.

On Sunday, I wrote about my love for the world’s lowest-ranked male figure skater, India’s Krishna Sai Rahul Eluri. I have a huge amount of affection for Eluri because he pushed himself beyond his capabilities and because he didn’t care about falling on his butt. Swaney, by contrast, embarrassed herself by refusing to embarrass herself.

Jerk Score: Swaney gets high marks across the board here, which is likely the only time “high marks” and “Elizabeth Swaney” will be used in the same sentence. Two out of 3 points for style, because I guess she could have gotten less than 6 inches of air her first time up the halfpipe. Three out of 3 points for technical merit, because this was the best scam since Adam Sandler bought all that pudding in Punch-Drunk Love. Three out of 3 points for execution, because according to the Associated Press she said after her qualification that she was “really disappointed” she didn’t make the finals. And 1 out of 1 points in the category of “Did she game her way into the Olympics without even having an inspiring personal story to mitigate her lack of athleticism?” Nine out of 10 points for Elizabeth Marian Swaney, who is clearly the person the Olympics Jerk Watch was made for. Next!

Previously on Olympics Jerk Watch: 

• The Vice President of the United States of America: 7 out of 10 Jerk Points

• The Sporteaucrats Who Risked Snowboarders’ Lives: 6.5 out of 10 Jerk Points

• The Shirtless Tongan: 4 out of 10 Jerk Points

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.