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If the Olympics are about admiring athletes' best attributes, then criticized Elizabeth Swaney deserves better

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Wrapped in an Irish flag, Brendan “Bubba” Newby made his way to his family where he wrapped his mother in a long, tight embrace and sobbed.

This is what it feels like to realize a dream.

“It’s unreal for the rest of my life, I’m an Olympian,” said Newby, an Orem native who was born in Ireland and thus was able to become that country’s first-ever freeskier to compete in the Winter Games when he competed in the ski halfpipe on Tuesday. “It’s actually something I’ve wanted my entire life. So to have it actually happen, I can’t even put it into words.”

Being an Olympian is as much an ideal as it is an experience.

The Games assert to champion the values of friendship, fair play and excellence. The reality is those are sometimes competing attributes, difficult to balance because the Olympics are a series of athletic competitions.

When gold medals, and the immortality that comes with being an Olympic champion, are on the line, friendship, and even fair play may not be as valuable to athletes, fans and national governing bodies as excellence.

If we needed proof of that, look at the massive, state-sponsored Russian doping debacle of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Not only did it prove the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency can’t catch cheaters until a lot of damage has been done to athletes and the integrity of the Games, but it proved that the attitude of some participants will always be that the ends justify the means.

Still, there is a mystique about the Games because an energy of camaraderie exists that isn’t found in any other sporting event involving professional athletes. There is something transcendent about representing one’s country with and against the rest of the world.

One of the reasons that camaraderie exists is because the IOC has rules that include countries and athletes who have no chance of winning medals. This year there were six countries making their first appearance at the Winter Games — Singapore (short track); Nigeria (women’s bobsled and skeleton); Malaysia (figure skating); Kosovo (alpine); Ecuador (cross-country skiing); Eritrea (alpine).

Ecuador’s Klaus Jungbluth Rodriguez finished 112th of 116 skiers, celebrating his finish with skiers like Tonga’s first cross-country athlete, Pita Taufatofua, who gained fame by marching in both the Rio and Pyeongchang opening ceremonies in traditional garb (no shirt).

The slowest cross-country athlete was Mexico’s German Madrazo, who finished nearly 26 minutes behind the winner — Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, who skied the brutal 15K course in 33:43.9. Despite their slow times, the men were celebrated for cheering one another on and capturing what many called the true Olympic spirit.

There were similar receptions and accolades for skeleton athletes like Ghana’s first sliding sports athlete and Orem resident Akwasi Frimpong, who has been hailed as being an inspiration to young people in the country his parents fled for the Netherlands when he was a child.

The UVU graduate was selling vacuums in Arizona when his wife worried that regret might haunt him if he didn’t chase his Olympic dream.

“She said, ‘I can see something is bothering you. What’s going on?’” Frimpong recalled in an interview with the Deseret News before traveling to South Korea. “I said, ‘I really want to accomplish that dream. I have this burning desire to be an Olympian.’ She said, ‘I don’t want you to be 99 years old and still be wanting it. Let’s go for it.’”

His then-pregnant wife worked “to be able to pay for my dream,” he said. They sold their house and cars and moved back to Utah so they could live with family while he chased his Olympic dream.

“It means so much to me to have that unconditional support,” he said of his wife and extended family. He not only enjoyed support from friends and family, but he said he had a “send-off from Ghana” in which he met the president.

His goal has been to inspire others like him, regardless of where they live or what means they might have, to never give up on their dreams.

When his parents fled Ghana, they went to the Netherlands where he lived as an illegal immigrant until he was a teen.

Frimpong hopes to show the world that those fleeing wars or persecution can be productive, valuable members of a community if they simply have opportunities.

“I want to inspire people to go chase their wildest dreams,” he said.

Which is, in and of itself, a noble reason to chase an Olympic dream.

In fact, there has been only one of these Olympians who never had a chance to win who received a less-than-welcoming reception, and that’s freeskier Elizabeth Swaney, who represented Hungary in the women’s ski halfpipe this week.

The 33-year-old Harvard graduate, who trains in Park City, didn’t make it out of qualifying and in fact, her run, in which she didn’t throw any tricks, went viral as media and fans called it absurd that she’d earned a spot in the Olympics simply by not falling in World Cup competitions.

So why were these other athletes lauded for their efforts just to get to the start line, which is, in every case, a massive sacrifice and tremendous accomplishment, while Swaney was vilified for making a mockery of the competition?

I wondered if her gender had something to do with it, but others suggested it was because she expressed surprise that she didn’t advance to the finals.

Newby offered another explanation.

“I think she was treated differently because it was halfpipe skiing,” he said. “It has nothing to do with gender. If it was me skiing that way, I’d get the exact same reaction.”

There is an expectation, he said, because the risk of flying high and spinning and flipping on the frozen feature is so massive.

“People risk their lives, and I hate to use that saying,” he said. “It’s cliché, but people risk their lives every day and to get beaten because you crashed and someone else didn’t, that’s what really gets a lot of people.”

Still, the reaction from the media seems overly harsh after the reception given the other athletes who clearly never had a chance to win anything but the hearts of those who believe committing to a dream is among the most admirable things a human being can do.

And if that’s true, Swaney deserves every bit as much love and praise as those who find a way to the Games, even if it means competing for a country their ancestors fled.

Newby said he’s likely never met a more determined person than Swaney, whom he said never fails to congratulate him regardless of how he does in a contest. Like every Olympian, she’s made sacrifices to earn her way to the Games, and she’s worked hard to be able to compete.

“There’s been a lot of criticism, and it sucks to see that because I’ve known her for awhile, and I don’t want her to be hurt,” said Newby, who was reluctant to talk to journalists about her because the coverage has been so venomous. “Whether you agree with how she skis or not, she’s been working for six or eight years to be an Olympian. And she made it happen. … At the end of the day, she’s an Olympian and I’m happy for her.”

Even the Olympians who finish last or seem to be overwhelmed by the experience confess to training four to six hours a day, nearly every day, in addition to fundraising to pay for the costs of their travel and equipment. They deserve what they’ve earned, and in some ways, people who’ve never committed to that kind of a goal or dream may not be able to understand it.

“Everyone is always saying, ‘Once you’re at the Olympics, you’ll understand’,” he said. “And it’s so true. It’s just insane. It’s bigger than anything you’ve ever been a part of, and it’s just great.”