Summer Britcher on re-discovering her motivation for Beijing 2022: "Like a treasure hunt with no map"

The American, who is the most successful U.S. World Cup singles luger ever, struggled after a disappointing PyeongChang 2018 experience and adjust her mindset ahead of a third Winter Olympics.

By ZK Goh
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

U.S. luger Summer Britcher knows the importance of sustaining her mental health all too well.

The 27-year-old is on the verge of taking part in her third Olympic Games, after competing at Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018.

But, as a podium hopeful in 2018, she left South Korea empty-handed, a fourth-placed finish in the team relay event her best result. That sent the Baltimore-born athlete into a spiral.

As a result, her approach towards Beijing 2022 has been very different to her previous Olympic experiences.

"It’s been a lot harder to find the motivation after going to the Olympics as a medal contender and then failing to make that happen, and really just getting older within the sport," she told Sliding On Ice earlier this year.

"It’s been a lot of reframing how I go about things for training and not putting the pressure on myself to be so motivated."

That has been part of Britcher learning to manage her own expectations this time, after two previous whirlwind Olympic quadrennials.

Adjusting her mindset

On a recent social media post, the American luger explained the pressures she and other athletes face, and how her mental health had been affected since PyeongChang, where she went in as a medal favourite and failed to make the podium.

Explaining that she felt 'mentally and emotionally broken' after the 2018 Olympics, Britcher said she struggled to find the motivation to compete.

"Over the following few years, the guilt of competing with zero motivation was one of the most unexpected and confusing challenges I've had to overcome," she wrote. "I was convinced that being driven and motivated was a requirement of athletic success and fulfilment, to the point that even when I was on the podium, or finished 3rd in the World Cup Overall in 2019, I felt hollow and empty. I've learned that motivation and passion is not an infinite resource."

It would take nearly two years for Britcher to find her groove again.

"Ultimately I had to restructure how I thought about sport and competing," she admitted. "I had to learn that it's okay for me to take up space as an athlete who doesn't fit the mould of motivation and enthusiasm that is expected.

"Trying to find motivation that you lost is like a treasure hunt with no map." - Summer Britcher

Now, Britcher said, she considers learning to find motivation as part of her routine.

"Training and competing is a choice I make every day. I love competing again, but staying motivated and putting in the work is not effortless. It is as much a part of my training as lifting weights or sliding, and sometimes more exhausting, with more difficult choices.

"This year won't be without its struggles, but I'm going into it in a better position mentally than I've ever been in."

From unlikely luger to most successful American singles athlete

Britcher never really intended to get into sliding.

As a young girl, all she knew was she wanted to become an Olympic athlete, she told Sliding On Ice.

"I kind of came across it in sixth grade. There was a little fun event at a ski mountain in Pennsylvania and they said I should go up to Lake Placid and try out for the development team – “You could maybe go to the Olympics one day!” – and I thought that would be great," she explaned.

"I’d get to be out of school for a week and any 11 year old is excited about that! It’s something I just really enjoyed and had a vague sense of commitment. At the time I just wanted to be invited back to the next camp and the next event and spend more time doing it."

Since then, Britcher's career has seen her become the most successful American singles World Cup luge athlete, with five race wins to her name on the global circuit. She also won Winter Youth Olympic Games gold in 2012 in the team relay.

But taking the next step and upgrading to World Championship or Olympic gold has, so far, been unfulfilled.

Back in 2014, prior to her Olympic debut in Sochi, the then-19-year-old told the York Daily Record that it was "frustrating" to compete against the top German athletes.

"I know I have so much to work on before I feel like I'm fully maxed out," Britcher said at the time. "I feel like I'm not at my peak, but I want to get there."

While she has undoubtedly come a long way since then, so have the Germans, who remain a traditional powerhouse in sliding sports.

Relaxing off track

With so much going on in her career as she gears up for Beijing 2022, Britcher takes time away from the track with gardening, something she picked up during the pandemic lockdown last year.

It's something she does with neighbours – and teammates – Ashley Farquharson and Chevonne Forgan.

"I live in the same building as Ashley and Chevonne and we have a little community garden going which is cool," she said.

"Mostly I’m just growing tomatoes, I’m really good at growing them and just really bad at growing everything else. So that’s what I stick with.

"This is kind of my quarantine hobby. I never thought I would be into gardening, it’s not really something that’s my thing." - Summer Britcher

Experience and gender equality

At just 27, it's hard to believe Britcher is already one of the veterans on the team.

"I think that shift happened pretty quickly after the PyeongChang Olympics because so many athletes retired," she explained.

"I’d see these athletes doing something and I’d give them unsolicited advice and they just nod along while not really listening. It made me realise I owe an apology to a lot of my previously older teammates!

"It seems to come full circle, I enjoy giving advice but it really makes me shake my head at my younger self!" - Summer Britcher to Sliding on Ice

Britcher also serves on the athletes council of the International Luge Federation (FIL), and tried to gain equality for women by pushing their start positions on tracks to the same point as the men's start.

However, it seems she is fighting a losing battle.

"I used to be a lot more vocal about it because it was just me speaking up and complaining about it," she said. But, she says, since becoming an athlete representative, "I can’t push too much for it because a lot of people don’t really want that change."

She has first-hand experience of the benefits of having raced from the men's start.

"We have the Lillehammer Cup (in Norway) in the fall and the past couple of times we’ve been there I’ve raced with the men from the men’s start," she said. "When we go back there for World Cup and I race back down at the women’s start I feel like I have this advantage that everyone else is just choosing to not give themselves."

Perhaps all that will finally translate into an Olympic medal in Beijing.

GO OLYMPIC. GET ALL THIS.

Free live sport events. Unlimited access to series. Unrivalled Olympic news & highlights.