Liz Swaney’s leisurely-looking freeski halfpipe run at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang was one of the most memorable moments of the games. She seemingly didn’t attempt any tricks (later she would have to clarify that she did do an alley-oop) as she slid up and down the halfpipe, looking like a recreational skier on a stage where we expect to see inhuman athletes doing inhuman things.
Swaney got to PyeongChang by taking advantage of the Olympics’ quota system. There were 24 Olympic spots available for the event, but each nation can only send a maximum of four skiers, so the top 24 in the world don’t necessarily get to go — the United States, for example, had six skiers ranked in the top 20. Swaney, who is from California but competed for Hungary, where her grandparents emigrated from, was able to take part as the No. 34-ranked athlete.
She attained that ranking by traveling to World Cup events around the world and accruing the minimum number of International Ski Federation-mandated top 30 finishes needed for Olympics eligibility, often by simply showing up to events with fewer than 30 competitors and simply not falling.
Swaney’s story sparked a lot of reaction, and none of it consistent. The spectrum ranged from those who claimed she is everything wrong with the Olympics to she is everything right. Depending on your perspective, she either unfairly gamed the system or proved that the dogged pursuit of a dream pays off.
What’s undeniable is that Swaney really wanted this. She led an exhausting lifestyle to get to South Korea, working multiple jobs and using her “down” time for training. She has attempted to do a lot of things throughout her life — before skiing, she competed for eight years in skeleton, once tried out for the Raiderettes, and even ran for governor of California at 19 years old — but the Olympics had been her goal since she was seven years old and she saw Kristi Yamguchi skate in the 1992 games in Albertville.
She spoke with SB Nation about the experience, including how she dealt with the overwhelming reaction, why she didn’t try to do more tricks, and what’s next for a person who has lived her entire life in four-year Olympic cycles.
The following interview was edited for clarity and length.
When did you come home?
Liz Swaney: Oh I’m just on the road right now, taking it one day at a time. Things kind of died down, so I have more time, trying to do other things right now.
Where are you right now?
LS: I’m still on the road, just traveling, but I have more time now than I did before, so that was how I was able to answer your message.
When you say on the road, what do you mean?
LS: Oh just traveling. I’m just trying to keep a low profile just this week and next week, and then I’ll be home sometime soon. And I feel like I have different homes around the world now, with Hungary, and California, and Korea felt like a home when I was there, too.
That’s cool, so you’re back in the United States now?
LS: Yeah, uh, yeah I’m eventually going to get to settle down in one place, but yeah, still not trying to reveal where I am.
Oh sure. Can we talk about that? Are you trying to — I know you’ve gotten a lot of media attention — has that been hard to deal with? Is that part of the reason?
LS: So that’s a good question. I’m just trying to take it a day at a time. I’ve been getting a lot of attention but just trying to make the best of it and answer questions as best I can.
You talk about attention, has it been negative attention, positive attention, has it been difficult to deal with?
LS: I think most of the negative attention has come from people who aren’t familiar with the ski qualification process or aren’t very familiar with skiing, or something like that. People that do talk to me or do a lot of research seem to be a lot more positive. So that’s what I try to keep in mind as well. One thing that kind of made me more confident in my skiing is that all the women I competed with in the Olympics and that I have competed with on the World Cup tour over the past two years, they have all been super supportive when they have spoken to me over the last few weeks. And everything they have been quoted saying about me over the last week or so has been positive as well.
Walk me through the week. It seemed, especially stateside, like there was a day when everything kind of blew up about you. People saw your run and got a hold of your story, and it seemed like, whoosh, everybody knows about you all of a sudden. Did it seem the same way to you, and do you remember what happened when you all of a sudden got this attention?
LS: I remember getting that, but I remember being more interested in watching finals that day for the women, and watching the men’s qualification and men’s finals. I knew there was a lot of attention, but my priority was to just support the other competitors in finals and then qualifications.
So that was my priority, to be there with me other halfpipe skiers and just do what I came there to do.
It sounds like you had a lot of people close to you who were there. Did you have to shut off Twitter and Facebook and tune out some of the negativity coming from the outside just so you could focus on what the people around you were saying?
LS: That’s a good question. I really try to listen to everyone’s opinion. And I’ve noticed my social media but haven’t really paid too much attention to it. I’ve tried to focus more on the other athletes that were competing.
The Hungarian Olympic Committee made a statement about you saying, “Well we’re going to rethink our process.” I’m curious how you feel about that.
LS: Right, that’s a good question. One of the committee members actually called me yesterday and said that all of the Olympic committee members have been supportive to me, and he told me thank you for helping to start a conversation of what the Olympics are about in Hungary. So that wasn’t told to me.
I think for any Olympics, all the qualifications do change, or they are in consideration every four years for every sport through my understanding. There’s a qualification for women’s freestyle skiing, only 24 women in the world are accepted. For halfpipe skiing, it’s already one of the more limited — it already has a lot less spaces than a lot of the other sports, so it is a pretty, pretty selective process. There’s about a four-page International Ski Federation document which details all the criteria for 2018.
A lot of people focused on the trick aspect of your run, so I’m curious: Why not try more tricks? Why didn’t you do more when you finally had that chance?
LS: That’s a good question. So I had a coach for two years and he actually lost that post right at the Olympics, so I was kind of on my own and trying to figure things out on my own when I was at the Olympics, which was really hard. So I just think I didn’t have that confidence there because I didn’t have that coach.
And the reason why I didn’t have a coach was that I had been sharing the coach with an athlete from another country for those two years, so we split 50 percent all the coaching costs and the travel costs, and he received his Olympics accreditation for the other country before he could have been offered one for Hungary. I guess each person can only have one accreditation, so he was told that the other country told him he cannot coach another athlete from another country, he just has to coach that country. And we weren’t expecting that, and we found that out like right after we had arrived at the Olympics.
Oh wow. When did you arrive in PyeongChang? How soon did you find out then?
LS: I arrived a few days before the opening ceremony, so I found out right before then. There was another resort that some of us were training at that has a halfpipe but it’s smaller, so I trained at that a little bit and that was helpful. Besides that some of the guidance from the other skiers, and the coach that I had was able to text me a little bit and tell me some encouraging words here and there. But it just wasn’t the same not to have him as my official coach, helping me out.
For sure, so then were you pretty much alone in South Korea?
LS: I feel like I was definitely alone so much in that aspect. I did find a friend who was able to help me at the top, and encourage me at the top, so I was grateful for that help. Then Corey, my original coach, was able to send me some text messages after my first Olympic run, after my second run, just giving me some ideas. But that’s totally different just to get a few text messages here and there.
So I did feel alone, but at the same time — I felt alone in skiing, but at the same time I had a lot of friends that I knew at the Olympics from skeleton and skiing, and the Hungarian team was encouraging and supportive, so I did feel like I had a lot of friendships and encouragement at the Olympics Village. Out on the snow, things were a lot different.
What other things have you tried? Like, I saw you tried out for the Raiderettes, you tried to do luge, you did rowing — you’ve done a lot of things, so what’s motivating you to do that? Why are you so varied?
LS: I feel like I’ve put a lot into a few things in my life, and a lot of it has been like cross training for skiing. Actually I did skeleton sledding, which is similar to luge it’s just flipped around, you go head first down the track. So I did that for a while, like eight years, competitively, and a few more year for fun. So sports have always been a big part of my life, and dancing helped me with cross training for freestyle tricks.
And part of that involves going to an audition like the Raiderettes and performing for a lot of people, which I think is great practice for competitions and the Olympics. So it’s a part of the cross training I did. I also was in a dance company for a year. I just keep an open mind and keep myself open for opportunities.
Since I was really young I planned my life for Olympic cycles, so besides that I haven’t really had a lot of other long-term goals, and I think that has allowed me to keep an open mind for any things that might come my way.
What other things have you dabbled in other than to go to the Olympics, besides some of the few that I listed. I saw that someone mentioned that you even tried out for the Cal hockey team, is that true?
LS: So yeah, skating was a big part of my life, and actually I started figure skating when I was seven, and I did that until my first year of college, and later did some ice hockey in college, and I thought that figure skating was a great foundation to be, like, an ice hockey goaltender which I did for the Cal team for about a season and a half or almost two seasons before I did skeleton sliding.
And again I feel like all of these transitions are pretty natural ones for me. I didn’t really go into things randomly. I try to see if I have a background for it and if I can succeed. I noticed for example the Raiderettes audition, and I also auditioned for the Utah Jazz. Like a lot of people have been dancing all of their lives, and I think maybe other people who are thinking about it in the back of their mind might be intimidated if they haven’t danced for most of their lives, but I thought, ‘OK, I have an athletic background, I’ve done intensive dance training for several months now, training specifically for this, but also training for skiing, I think I have a chance at this.’
And because I know that there’s going to be a five percent chance at succeeding and I have that background, I go for it. I don’t think, ‘OK, there’s a 95 percent chance of me succeeding, now I can go for it.’ I just look for that slightest percentage chance, and that’s enough for me to try that out.
Essentially you competed in a lot of different skiing events, and that helped you to qualify for the Olympics. You had to travel a ton for that. How did you facilitate that? Was everything out of your own pocket? Did you fundraise?
LS: That’s a good question. I did go to a lot of events. I believe it was nine World Cups and one World Championship prior to the Olympics over the past two years, and then even ski competitions before that to hopefully get enough points to qualify for the World Cup. But back in Utah I just had so many jobs to try to support my skiing, and I would work sometimes 18 to 20 hours with two or three different jobs, and then fit in training and gym time. Not every day, but a lot of days were like that. A lot of friends would be like, ‘When do you have time to hang out or see a movie?’ It would be really hard because I almost never had a day off.
That was maybe 90 percent of it. The remaining 10 percent of it was some crowdfunding, and some family and friends and private sponsorships.
Were your jobs pretty flexible? I saw you work at Thumbtack. How were you able to work with your job to actually do this?
LS: It required a lot of plannings, and a number of my jobs have been flexible. Thumbtack has been more of like a regularly schedule a job. I did start off at their call center, which was open from like 6 a.m. to, I don’t know, 8 or 9 p.m. at night, so when I first started there, it gave me more flexibility. I did a lot of service jobs, and those tend to be more like 24-hours jobs, and jobs that people need around the holidays.
Another one of my jobs was being a banquet server, so one of my jobs would be a few days a week something from 8 p.m or 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., and there are not a lot of jobs like that. Or I would be a ski instructor Saturday during the whole day, or Sunday during the whole day when I wasn’t training. And I did some real estate also, so I did some work that I could just do on my laptop, and there were some work from home opportunities as well with Thumbtack when I got into recruiting there, so that definitely helped as well.
I think a lot of people would probably look at that and be like: a) I don’t know how I could do that, but b) I kind of want to do that, because you got to pursue a lot of different things. How do you maintain that? And how do you keep yourself from burning out?
LS: I think burning out was never really an option for me. I just kind of always thought of the Olympics as my end goal, and I used the next activity to kind of recover from that previous activity. Like I couldn’t be a banquet server 18 hours a day, I could just do that 6 to 8 hours a day a few days a week, and then I’d be at the call center, and later be a recruiter at a desk and that was recovery from standing up all the time, but then standing up as a banquet server that helped me be a little more active from my sit-down office job.
And of course being on the mountain and being in the gym, those are things that helped build my stamina a lot. So I think a lot of these jobs helped me in some way with my athletics as well because a lot these jobs were pretty active. I was also a ski technician super part time, and that allowed me for instance to not pay to tune my skis for a while, it let me repair whatever skis I wanted, and it helped me learn more about skis and about me moving around. And we had ski breaks and that’s another thing that helped me.
And also that was one of the jobs that had meals provided. Like Thumbtack has meals provided at both their Salt Lake and San Francisco offices. So it was nice to have jobs that had lunch or dinner, that was awesome.
You said that when you were little is when the idea of being an Olympian first entered your head. I’m curious: a) How old were you, and b) Why? Why did the Olympics appeal to you?
LS: That’s a good question. I was seven and just thought the Olympics are so inspiring and cool. I remember watching Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992 I think. And I don’t really remember why, it was just kind of the only thing I had known just to go for the Olympics, I never really questioned that. From age 7 it’s just always been a part of who I am. It’s just something that I needed to do and keep striving for.
Is your plan to continue competing in skiing now that you’ve made the Olympics? Would you want to try for another sport? And is your goal to back in four years?
LS: Right? That’s a good question. I’m just trying to take it a day at a time. I feel like I’ve planned so much of my life in four-year Olympic cycles and I’ve already achieved competing at the Olympics, so I’m not really sure what’s going to happen after this or if I can have another four-year plan or not. Yeah I’d struggle to do this for four more years, but I haven’t ruled anything out yet.
What’s next? I saw that you’re doing some American Ninja Warrior training. Do you have any idea of sports you want to try or things you want to try?
LS: Yeah, well if you have any ideas, or anyone does, let me know, but I’m just trying to keep an open mind, and take it a day at a time. I love working out at the gym, so looking forward to doing that and not necessarily having to specialize a lot of my workouts for ski training. The ninja warrior training was really helpful to get some cross training and upper body training for skiing as well. But yeah, I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen in the future.
What was your best memory of the Olympics, and what will you remember most from those couple weeks?
LS: I would say it’s a series of moments. I would say my best memories are just different friends from skeleton and skiing, and even the Hungarian team coming up to me over the days after my run, and saying, ‘Oh we encourage you, we support you. Don’t pay attention to the media, we know the hard work you’ve put in.’ Even now, while part of it was hard to go through, it was kind of almost worth it to just see how much my friends cared. Even people that didn’t know me, they would come up to me and support me.
Is there anything else you’d like to say? Or just anything I didn’t ask that you would like to see answered in this?
LS: I think it’s been awesome that all the women who skied here had supportive things to say, that helps keep me going. I just hope to encourage and inspire others if I can. But I think most of all I feel pretty bad that so much attention has been put on my run and what I did. I wish that every minute that has been put on my run or every moment of attention could be focused back to other competitors, or maybe if someone spent even five minutes looking at my run and figuring out what I’m about that they’re also able to spend five more minutes looking at these other amazing competitors, and the men too, in halfpipe skiing. So I really want more attention on freestyle skiing as a whole, and these other amazing people. So hopefully I can help with that in some way.