After a mysterious freestyle ski run in last year’s Winter Olympics, people called Elizabeth Swaney a scam artist and the worst athlete in the history of the games. They’re wrong.
If you happened to tune in to the Winter Games last year during the women’s halfpipe skiing competition, you might have caught one of the Olympics’ most perplexing moments. Halfpipe, which was introduced to the games in 2014, features an adrenaline-soaked spectacle: Skiers plummet down a steep track into a frozen ramp the shape of an empty motel swimming pool, before flying up the ramp’s 22-foot walls and launching high into the air for a series of bold tricks.
For years, the Olympics had been hemorrhaging viewers to the younger-skewing X Games. Adding halfpipe, among a slew of other freestyle skiing and snowboarding competitions, seemed like a clear bid to siphon back fans who craved big air. Last February, in the qualifying round in Pyeongchang, skier after skier hit the pipe ramp and soared into the sky, their bodies flipping and spinning. Then, Elizabeth Swaney — an Oakland native who’d been a last-minute add to the Hungarian team — started her run, and something really weird happened: She barely did any tricks.
Instead, she rose neatly up and down the sides of the ramp in bizarrely underwhelming fashion, as the TV announcers, thoroughly confused, narrated the action: “Liz dropping in … just getting up to the top of the wall.… Easing up to the top of the wall, showing the judges she can make it down this halfpipe clean.” The overall effect was of a basketball player dribbling up and down the court while never shooting the ball, or a figure skater cruising in circles on the ice without a single jump.
When Swaney finished her run, she carved her way to a stop at the bottom of the course beside a throng of spectators in parkas, pumped her fist three times, and looked up at the scoreboard, waiting for the judges’ tally, as though hoping she might have done well enough to advance to the medal round. After a minute, the numbers popped up: She’d totaled 31.4, one of the lowest scores ever recorded in the sport’s Olympic history. She finished in last place.
A video of her performance quickly went viral and sparked polarized reactions. Many were furious, labeling her a fraud who had cheated her way into the games. “It’s not some adult Disney World where you go to take selfies,” someone posted on Swaney’s Instagram account. “The Olympics are a showcase of the BEST athletes in the world and Swaney made a mockery of that. She made a mockery of people’s life work.” On Twitter, she was called the “worst Olympian ever,” and a CBS Sports columnist said she’d accomplished “the real American dream: Scamming the system to achieve your life goals while doing the absolute bare minimum to get there.” More than one commentator pointed out that by seizing her spot at the Olympics, she’d surely squeezed out people who were more deserving. Others had a more generous read, clumping her with past Olympians who lacked talent but had shown grit by competing in sports in which they were completely outmatched.
In an interview on the Today show, when the hosts pressed Swaney about the backlash, she danced around their questions, further mystifying audiences by acting as though there was nothing unusual about her runs. “I just fell in love with freestyle skiing and the opportunities for expression that it gives people,” she told the hosts vaguely. Asked about those who would say she didn’t belong in the Olympics, Swaney replied, “I thank them for their time … and I would just encourage positive vibes for everyone.” Left with no satisfying answers, people continued to puzzle over who Elizabeth Swaney was and how this seemingly average athlete had managed to compete on the biggest stage in sports.
I found Swaney earlier this year at a gym in San Francisco called Flagship Athletic Performance, where she likes to train after work. (When she’s not working out, she’s a recruiter for the tech company Thumbtack.) The song “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams, jangled from wall-mounted speakers, while a tattooed young woman led two dozen charges through a series of jumps, skips, and hops. Between sets, people chattered about their work at Facebook and Apple.
In a quiet corner, Swaney, who is 34, stretched, anonymous and unnoticed in her gray T-shirt, shiny silver leggings, and a pair of weightlifting Nikes that glowed hot pink. Nothing about her presence announced that she was an Olympic athlete; if you’d asked someone to guess who in the room had competed in the 2018 Winter Games, he might have pointed to ten other people first.
Done with her stretches, Swaney loaded weights on a barbell and began what struck me as a peculiar routine: For 15 minutes, she lifted the barbell from her thighs up to her waist, then lowered it back to her thighs, a span of about 3 inches. Next, she held the barbell at her waist and spent ten minutes simply clenching her shoulders up toward her ears, again and again. Finally, she added more weight and all at once snatched a 90-pound load from the ground and smoothly flipped it above her head. The bits she’d been practicing and perfecting, I realized, were micro-steps within a much larger (and more impressive) coordinated movement.
I asked her to explain her technique, since I knew nothing about weightlifting, and she broke things down for me in friendly, technical detail, invoking axioms of physics and the names of interwoven muscle groups.
“So it’s all about gravity?” I asked, jokingly obtuse.
She flashed a smile, then zapped it. “I would say it’s more about belief.”
Swaney has a scientist’s precise manner and a rock climber’s focus. She’s the type of person who listens to audiobooks at double speed (and is working her way up to 2.5 speed), attends Sundance screenings for documentaries like Senna and Bhutto and thrusts her hand in the air to ask questions at post-show Q&A’s, and considers emailing the authors of a self-improvement book called Designing Your Life with suggestions on how they might improve their advice — the authors encourage people to focus on one thing; Swaney believes in attacking a variety of goals at once.
At 19, she mounted a campaign for governor of California in a race ultimately won by Arnold Schwarzenegger. In her effort to gather the signatures needed to get her name on the ballot, she stationed herself in front of a gym, sensing that people would be in a better mood — and more likely to engage — after a workout. Over the years, she’s auditioned, unsuccessfully, to be a cheerleader for the Utah Jazz, Oakland Raiders, and L.A. Clippers, and trained in archery, gymnastics, piano, and flute. “If I’m going to do something,” she told me, “I want to learn how to do it well. I might not become the best in the world at it, but I’ll learn how the people who are the best in the world are doing it.” Her diversified goals seem to function as some combo of self-challenge and intellectual curiosity.
During breaks from her workout, she slowly unspooled details of her unusual résumé. Swaney was born during the 1984 Olympics, she told me, and at age 7, after watching figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi — another Bay Area native — win the gold, she felt moved to pursue her own Olympic dream and began taking skating lessons. A few years later, Swaney’s mom brought her to a luncheon hosted by Yamaguchi, and Swaney had a chance to meet her hero; she says Yamaguchi took the opportunity to hammer home the staggering hours of practice Swaney would need to devote to skating if she hoped to become an Olympian.
Swaney continued to train on the ice, but when her middle school teacher suggested that she try rowing, she fell in love with the sport and in college became the coxswain for the highly ranked University of California men’s crew team. She had a talent for building friendships with her rowers and mined their personal stories for details she could use to help push them beyond their limits on race days. “She was the quiet assassin,” Ivan Smiljanic, a team captain, told me. “Outside the boat, she wasn’t loud. She wasn’t rambunctious. But as soon as she stepped in the boat, she held the reins.” After grad school at Harvard (she studied real estate), Swaney, like a space probe aimed toward faraway planets, relentlessly trained in various sports, including rowing, ice hockey, and skeleton (a luge variant where competitors hurtle headfirst at 80 miles per hour down an icy track). She was fixed on the idea of one day competing in the Olympics, in whatever capacity, making whatever sacrifices were necessary.
For many Olympic sports, the nation’s elite athletes are nestled inside Team USA training programs, where the costs of their room, board, and coaching staff are largely covered. This allows them to devote themselves entirely to their craft. But a notch below these elite athletes subsists a layer of good but not great ones, who may not qualify for Team USA sponsorship but for whom the Olympics still feel tantalizingly within reach. Swaney was in this second tier. For these athletes, the challenge is multiplied — they need to prove themselves in their sport while finding a way to manage the entire financial burden of pressing toward their Olympic dream.
Swaney moved to Park City, Utah, a hub for Olympic hopefuls. To pay rent and cover the costs of coaches, gear, and lift passes, she worked a string of thankless jobs — collecting carts in the Whole Foods parking lot, selling cellphones for Sprint, and serving banquets at a five-star resort. “I greeted thousands of guests. ‘Good morning, sir,’ and ‘Good afternoon, ma’am,’ ” she told me. “It was all in service of a larger goal.” Her finances were stretched so thin that she sometimes got by on peanut butter and bananas.
Some athletes who can’t make the cut for their home country’s Olympic team are allowed to compete for other countries if they have legitimate ties elsewhere. In qualifying events for the skeleton — a sport in which Swaney believed she could land an Olympic spot — she represented Venezuela, where her mother grew up; it didn’t hurt that fewer women competed, improving her odds. But after several years of intensive training and competition, she failed to make the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. She shifted her focus to halfpipe, vying to become the first-ever freestyle skier in the Olympics to represent Hungary, the home of her grandparents. Halfpipe was known for its danger — four-time Winter X Games gold medalist Sarah Burke had died after a crash in Park City on the same course where Swaney began to train. Only the top 24 female halfpipers would be eligible for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang. But with the dearth of halfpipe courses, and the relatively low supply of world-class competitors, the sport also presented Swaney with what could be her best chance to make the Olympics.
Here’s the truth of it: Swaney hadn’t trained relentlessly for years at a single sport in the way that her fellow Olympian hopefuls had. Although she could pull off impressive (if still lower-range) aerial stunts in practice on a water ramp, she couldn’t complete the same tricks on the halfpipe, where a bad landing could lead to catastrophic injury. So she took another approach. The world rankings were based on points that skiers accumulated at a series of qualifying events in the years leading up to the Olympics in far-flung locales, ranging from California and Colorado to New Zealand and China. If she attended every single qualifying event and skied a flawless, if simplistic, routine, she’d harvest a few points each time, outscoring those who tried for more-ambitious runs but couldn’t land their stunts — a tortoise to their hare.
It was a clever, bluntly effective strategy, and by the time the 2018 Olympics drew near, she was on the cusp of qualification. When a few athletes pulled out due to injury just weeks before the games, Swaney got the call from the Hungarian Olympic Committee that she’d always dreamed of. She was in.
“She was just born that way.”
This was Swaney’s dad, Tom, who owns an insurance agency, talking to me over tea, as we sat with her mom, Ines, in Swaney’s childhood bedroom. They lived in the same home in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood where they’d raised Swaney and her brother. Swaney moved back in with them two years ago; she sleeps in the basement, workout clothes spread across the floor. Between her day job at Thumbtack, her multiple daily workouts, and traveling for competitions, they see her only fleetingly, although sometimes she rides the morning train into San Francisco with her dad.
In the year since Swaney competed in the Winter Games, Tom’s colleagues had often asked him for parenting advice; they wanted to raise an Olympian as he had. But Tom told them he was surprised by his daughter’s endless motor and that he had no advice to give. “She has an idea,” he marveled, “and she just goes and does it. It’s been that way since she was a kid. If only it was so easy for me and for everyone.”
But the longer I talked to Tom and Ines, the more I had the sense that Swaney had absorbed some crucial, formative lessons from them. Ines is a Spanish interpreter who sometimes works for the courts. For decades, as a hobby of sorts, Ines and her friends have met monthly to enter a wide range of sweepstakes, which meant mailing in entry forms or postcards. And while she’s never cashed in on a million-dollar payday, she’s won countless smaller prizes — restaurant gift certificates; tickets to concerts, movies, and sporting events; and even two seats to the luncheon with Kristi Yamaguchi where she’d introduced her daughter to the Olympic star.
Tom was ritualistic in supporting whatever challenges Swaney dreamed up. Watching Yamaguchi at the Olympics ignited in Swaney an interest in figure skating, so Tom arranged lessons. When she asked to play Little League baseball, he signed her up for a co-ed team, where she was often the only girl. Her teammates were reluctant to practice with her, but Tom took her to the backstop at a nearby grade school and taught her to throw, catch, and hit. In high school, when Swaney said she wanted to join a crew team called Oakland Strokes, Tom drove her to the estuary to train at 4:30 in the morning a few times a week.
When Swaney had qualified for the Olympics, her parents were thrilled that her persistence had paid off. They stayed up late, watching from their living room as their daughter appeared on their TV from Pyeongchang. “There she is!” Ines cried. But after Swaney performed the same kind of run that she’d been skiing at all of her qualifying events, and the video clip spread, they were heartbroken by the response. “It was shocking how unprofessional these news outlets could be,” Tom told me. After an article in The Associated Press appeared, saying that his daughter “had no business competing in the Olympics,” he felt that every other outlet had followed suit without digging deeper into her story. He mentioned English ski jumper Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team, and Tongan skier Pita Taufatofua, who had all become Olympic darlings as lovable underdogs and whose ineptness was at the core of their charm.
Ines and Tom’s emotional reaction to the backlash was drastically different from Swaney’s own response, which was, in essence, not to have a response at all. Whenever I asked her about the criticisms, she gave the same detached, deflective explanation she’d given countless times before: That she’d tried her best, that she had done some tricks, and that, ultimately, she doesn’t listen to voices that aren’t positive; there’s no point.
The contrast reminded me of a story Ines had told me about a sweepstakes she’d won, which awarded her seats to a Golden State Warriors game and three chances to shoot a free throw during a timeout to win a $300 gift card. Before she took the shot, a courtside staffer told her, “Hey, if you make this, go absolutely nuts. Let the whole arena feel your excitement.” Ines shot the free throw “granny-style,” swished it, and jumped around in glee, like a World Cup player after a game-winning goal. Her reaction was partly genuine, but largely a put-on; she was merely doing as she’d been instructed. After all, it was just a free throw, and she’d only won a few hundred bucks. But the arena shook with applause, and over the course of the night, as she roamed the stands, Ines found herself trading high-fives with her newfound fans. It was a testament to the power of stagecraft: The facts of an event mattered less than their presentation.
But for Swaney, the very qualities that got her into the Olympics in the first place — the unadulterated belief that her hard work would somehow pay off, her refusal to succumb to, or even acknowledge, self-doubt — were the very things that prevented her from being an athlete the public could connect with. When the online trolling began, Swaney responded not as someone who understood what spectators needed — an acknowledgment of her underachievement — but as someone who felt pride in what she had managed to accomplish against long odds. “I just love challenges,” she cheerfully told the hosts of the Today show, a couple of days after her last-place finish. “I’m always trying to do my best.”
In Pyeongchang, Swaney’s fellow Olympic halfpipers rose up to defend her; they’d witnessed firsthand her effort on the training slopes of Park City. “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 Cassie Sharpe, who’d won the gold. Swaney told me that Maddie Bowman, a 2014 gold medalist, gave her a hug when they crossed paths right after the competition and told her, “We love you.” And men’s halfpiper David Wise, who’d struck gold in two consecutive Olympics, told a reporter he was “inspired by her.”
After the run, she started reading through some of the hateful comments on YouTube and Instagram. Tom said he thought of his daughter as a fortress, eerily imperturbable. But one night when he asked if she’d read some new articles analyzing her story, she told him, “Dad, I don’t think I can read any more of those,” before disappearing into her room in the basement.
Within a few weeks, Swaney did what she always does — she focused on another goal: competing on the TV show American Ninja Warrior.
When she decided she wanted to train for American Ninja Warrior, energized by its range of physical challenges, Swaney sought out a man named Brian Kretsch, who operates a Ninja Warrior training gym called Apex, in Concord, California, a half-hour east of her parents’ house.
On my last night in town, I drove with Swaney to Apex. We crossed over the Oakland Hills, winding past fast-food restaurants and chain stores into a misty industrial park, where Kretsch’s gym was located inside a nondescript warehouse. American Ninja Warrior, the reality show where competitors try to complete an imaginative, death-defying obstacle course, spawned dozens of ANW-style gyms around the country, doubling as adult playgrounds and training centers for those who hope to become contestants on the show.
Kretsch, lean and tall, is one of the longtime stars of ANW, having appeared on all ten seasons. He stood with his arms crossed atop a high pedestal in the middle of the gym, beside a giant pit filled with foam fragments, calling out advice here and there to people fighting to get through the obstacle course and chastising a band of young teenagers for playing tag. “People see this on TV, and they think it’s gonna be easy,” he told me. “Then they come in here, and we never see them again. We call them ‘one and dones.’ ”
Swaney was the opposite, Kretsch said. Supreme challenge was her prime motivation. “When something is hard, she shows up every day until she conquers it. She’s a gym rat. And this sport is the ultimate test of patience and persistence.” Swaney, he went on, was also highly coachable and extremely focused. “She wants to improve her technique because she understands that’s where she’ll make the biggest gains.”
I watched Swaney try an obstacle called Rumbling Dice, four interconnected pullup bars attached to a rolling cube. A few months before, she’d fractured her heel at Apex, and her strength had slipped a little. “See,” Kretsch said, “most people try to muscle their way through that one. But it’s all about technique.” He said that Swaney had a stunning mind-body connection — she could receive advice and instantly translate it.
She moved to a “balance log” and crossed it a few times. She lost her footing once and crashed to the mat below. Instantly, she dusted herself off for another attempt, making it with ease. “Your turn,” Swaney called to me. “Come try some of this stuff!”
She suggested I limber up with some pullups and lingered close by as I struggled to lift myself up to the bar. It was shameful to broadcast my weakness to a room full of athletes. “OK,” she offered generously, “if you can’t do a pullup, see how long you can hang there. That can awaken your muscles.” I dangled there, arms burning, for as long as I could.
“Great!” Swaney said. She brought me to an area called the Floating Steps and demonstrated a path through the first few obstacles, hopping across the tops of four wooden posts of increasing height, before leaping to a thick rope, swinging to another platform, and crossing hand over hand along a steel horizontal ladder, until dropping to a stuntman’s thickly cushioned mat below.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But there’s no way I can do that.” Then Swaney proceeded to show me the technique needed to conquer the first chunk, giving me tips on footwork and encouraging me not to allow my fear of failure and fear of looking foolish to mount. She patiently instructed me, looking for ways to make the impossible feel achievable, just as she’d done as a coxswain, just as she’d done her whole life for herself. Seeing her as this unflappable coach brought to mind something that a trainer, Zach Lemis at the Flagship gym, had told me about Swaney: He’d been in a weightlifting teacher-training course with her and was surprised to discover that she was learning to teach lifting while new to lifting herself. Swaney had also told me that when she’d learned to ski in Park City, within months she began training as a ski instructor. “Learning how to teach things,” she told me, “helps me process how to do it myself.”
Finally, after six failed attempts, I made it to the swinging rope and, adrenalized, managed to swing my way to the ladder, where I powered all the way across to the finish, letting out a cry of victory that echoed throughout the gym.
“Nice job!” Swaney cheered. All week, I’d never seen her smile so broadly. I lay on the mat, heaving for breath. Minutes earlier, the idea of completing even that minor section of the course had seemed ludicrous. But somehow, Swaney had chipped away at my skepticism. It’s as if she knew something I was only beginning to understand: We’re all amateurs at just about everything, and most of us will stay amateurs. But that only matters if you let it. Swaney extended a hand to pull me up. She wanted me to take a shot at the balance log next. Apex didn’t close for another half-hour.