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Is Elizabeth Swaney the worst Olympian? Actually, she might be the best

Is Elizabeth Swaney the worst Olympian? Actually, she might be the best

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Before the world knew her name and dissected her motivations and judged her and GIFed her and memed her, Elizabeth Swaney beamed. For six years, she had practiced skiing a halfpipe, working from halfway up its walls to three-quarters of the way to the edge of the lip. Going in the air still scared her, but that didn’t matter. Now she was an Olympian.

“Today was probably one of the most exciting days of my life,” Swaney said Monday in the hours after what soon would become the most famous halfpipe ski runs in the sport’s short life, in which she skied up to the edge of the pipe, then back down, a metronomic display of trickless welfare that followed her competitors’ airborne daring. In conversations that day and the following, she repeated the same mantra multiple times: “I was happy to put down two runs.”

Over the past quarter century, the 33-year-old Swaney had geared her life toward one goal: becoming an Olympian. When people asked about her future plans, she would say: “I live my life by Olympic cycles.” She tried figure skating and ice hockey and speed skating, and when the bladed sports did not take, she rode skeleton, and when she couldn’t slide fast enough, she learned to ski. She wanted to represent the United States, and when her talent wouldn’t allow that, she changed affiliations to Venezuela, and when a better path to her endgame presented itself, she switched again, to Hungary, whose red-white-and-green colors she wears daily in the athletes’ village.

[Liz Swaney interview: Is this the most elaborate prank of all-time?]

Between the quality of her runs and her country-hopping, Swaney has become a simultaneous cult hero and object of scorn, the most polarizing athlete of the PyeongChang Games. The notion of a triple-major at Cal-Berkeley with a master’s from Harvard leveraging obscure rules into participating delights those who wonder what an everywoman would look like in the Olympics and angers others who believe she gamed the system.

“It’s totally the opposite,” said Tom Swaney, her father. “You know, there aren’t a lot of people that way anymore. There’s an earnestness and innocence in modern society you don’t see. She has it.”

As video of Swaney’s runs spread, it sparked discussion of Olympic morality and ethics, birthed snark that she had defiled a fringe sport seeking mainstream support, spurred debate over how she compared to Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel and other viral heroes of Olympics past. And all the while, Swaney didn’t embrace it, and she didn’t fight it. She said, “I’m always just trying to ski the best I can,” and left it at that.

“It’s really disappointing to see how quickly people jump to conclusions,” said Eric Hand, a longtime friend of Swaney’s. “They look at something surface-deep and assume the worst. If people really looked at her at a deeper level, there’s a more amazing story there.”

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