American Swaney chases Olympic dreams...for Venezuela
Sunny Venezuela has never had much of presence at the Winter Olympics. It didn't send even a single athlete to Vancouver in 2010 and has sent a total of six athletes ever to the Winter Games.
In 2014, Berkeley, Calif., native Liz Swaney is hoping to return Venezuela to the Winter Olympic map by representing her newly adopted motherland in halfpipe skiing and skeleton racing. If she qualifies to compete in at least one of her events, Swaney, 29, will be Venezuela's sole female team member in Sochi.
With her all-American looks and higher-education degrees from U.S. universities, Swaney hardly seems the obvious candidate to represent the tropical, turbulent country of Venezuela. But the upbeat blonde actually has strong ties to the nation; Swaney's mother is Venezuelan, and she was raised in a bicultural and bilingual household.
Her connection to Venezuela resulted in a sense of national pride and fluency in Spanish. For Swaney, who fantasized about going to the Olympics since she was six years old, her heritage also became her key to possibly making that dream a reality.
Despite her childhood desire for Olympic glory, the dual-sport athlete didn't set her sights on international competition until later in life than most Olympic hopefuls.
Swaney got into skeleton during her junior year of college after watching the 2006 Olympics, though it wasn't her first choice of sledding sports. "I tried to get recruited by the U.S. Bobsled Federation," she said. "They sent me an email back saying, 'Sorry, you're too small for bobsledding, but we'd love for you to try skeleton.'"
Skiing came even later, in 2010, once Swaney had already relocated to Park City, Utah, to train for skeleton full-time. Halfpipe skiing proved most natural to Swaney thanks to her previous experience in ice skating, water ramp training and gymnastics.
With halfpipe skiing not yet an Olympic sport in 2010 -- it will make its Olympic debut in Sochi -- Swaney's hopes for reaching the Vancouver Olympics rested solely on her skeleton skills. However, her attempt to represent her native U.S. in the sport proved fruitless as she still lacked the experience needed to beat more seasoned competitors.
Undeterred by her failed Olympic qualification, Swaney found a loophole that would give her a better chance in the future: As the daughter of a Venezuelan citizen, she too was entitled to citizenship, which would give her eligibility to compete for Venezuela internationally.
"At the beginning of last season I decided, why not try representing another country?" Swaney said. "I might have a better chance of going to the Olympics."
While Swaney has no Venezuelan opponents to beat out to make the national Olympic team, she still must earn one of the limited spots at Sochi. To qualify for Olympic competition, athletes in both halfpipe and skeleton must earn a requisite amount of points, which they acquire by competing in events throughout the season.
After skiing in the World Cup Tour in February, Swaney is now ranked 36th on the Olympic quota allocation list, 12 spots off from the Olympic cutoff. If she can't crack the top 24, Swaney's only other hope is for an exception if a country chooses to not fill all of its allotted halfpipe slots.
Qualifying for skeleton operates on a separate, condensed process. "Everything gets erased from all the previous seasons and starts fresh from November to January," Swaney said. "It's a points-grabbing game. You have to go to as many competitions as possible."
Nearing the halfway point of the mad dash for points, Swaney has competed in five races but has a lot of ground to make up. She is currently 27th on the Olympic quota allocation list with only 20 women's skeleton spots available in Sochi. Swaney's 22 points this season trail 20th-place holder Joska Le Conte's 62.
In addition to the physical challenges of training and competition for two sports, Swaney is also dealing with financial issues, as Venezuela's Olympic committee is not providing her with any funding for her training and travel expenses. The ever-resourceful Swaney has had to get creative to compensate for Venezuela's lack of financial aid.
On top of working as a server at a local restaurant and launching her own online Kickstarter-style fundraising page, Swaney has been pounding the pavement all over Park City to spread the word about her Olympic campaign.
"Last weekend I walked around to 45 businesses in town and handed them my ski and skeleton cards with my website and email and I talked to them about my sport," Swaney said. "And then I though, might as well expand to the bars, so I walked around to all the bars and handed people my card."
If her hard work and fundraising pay off in getting Swaney to the Olympics, competing for Venezuela will be about more than her own quest for glory, she said. Swaney hopes to also promote Latin American representation in winter sports.
"One person that I'm inspired by is Ruben Limardo, who won the first gold medal for Venezuela in men's fencing," she said. "I was in Venezuela when he won and you could see celebrations in the streets. I was like 'Wow, people in Venezuela are really inspired by this.'
"Maybe I could do something similar with one of the winter sports I have experience in. Hopefully my participation in the Olympics and on the international stage helps inspire people to pursue their own dreams, whether they be athletic dreams or others in life."