USA luger Emily Sweeney: Sifting the Olympic dream from her PyeongChang nightmare

Emily Sweeney saw her dream Olympic debut become a nightmare at PyeongChang 2018. Rebuilding from the crash that broke her neck and back and nearly ended her career, the ever-smiling Beijing hopeful spoke to Olympics.com earlier this year about fear, Lake Placid roots and her enduring love of luge.

By Jonah Fontela
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

The 2018 Olympic Winter Games, for American luger Emily Sweeney, were the best of times and the worst of times.

“Crashing is a part of luge; it’s how you learn and most crashes are simple and you ride them out,” said Sweeney discussing the crash that turned her career highlight, an Olympic debut, into a nightmare of broken bones and shattered confidence. “It broke me in a lot of ways. After that, I had fear.”

If you’d asked Sweeney four years ago if she was afraid of her sport you’d have got an emphatic no from the 1.64m, always-smiling dynamo of the luge track. Such are the preparations and precautions of these sliding athletes, with nothing between them and catastrophe but millimeters-thick nylon and a helmet.

“It was the perfect storm of the worst things; it was aggressive,” she said recalling that day when she flew from the track in turn 12 at the Olympic Sliding Centre in Daegwallyeong. Her mind slowed down what was happening so it seemed, as she put it, “almost peaceful.”

“I was fighting and fighting until I realised, ‘hey I have no control over this and I just have to ride it out’."

Broken bones and dreams

Sweeney managed to get her head up, which might have saved her life. She speaks of the incident and its immediate aftermath in matter-of-fact language, punctuated by a smile that’s never far from her lips. “They checked me right there on the track to make sure my nervous system was still firing; that I could still feel everything...and I could.

“Your body goes into guard-mode,” added Sweeney, now 28, of the way her muscles tensed, almost seized, in response to the trauma.

She didn’t lose consciousness and somehow walked away. She regained her composure and her breath after “everything was knocked out” of her. It wasn’t until later, at the hospital, that the extent of her injuries became known. Broken bones in her neck and back both.

And that was only the beginning. Sweeney was nine months out of competition. Walking, the one activity allowed after the initial healing, exhausted her. She couldn’t sit up and she couldn’t lay down. “I was lucky not to need surgeries or anything,” she said. “But I was just really, and I mean, really, broken.”

She spent her first months just trying “to find a comfortable position” without much success. All the vapor of the frozen track and the adrenaline of the crash evaporated leaving Sweeney, who lost 20 pounds in the six months she couldn’t train, asking questions that cut right down to the core of her.

Ghosts of Lake Placid

“My world just stopped; I lost myself,” said Sweeney, who balks at the popular mental health buzzwords of the day, thinking them “too pretty” for such an ugly problem. “I was frail and weak and I didn’t know if I could physically do it [the sport of luge] again. And for the first time in my life, I didn’t have a dream.”

Most athletes who endure the trials that come with the cost of an Olympic ticket will admit to having a lifelong fascination with the Games. There’s some precise moment when the flame or the podium, or the grit or the glory, coalesce on a TV screen to fix a point on a horizon – something to chase.

But Sweeney, born in Portland, Maine and raised in northern Connecticut, was steeped in the traditions and iconography of the Olympic Games in a more direct way than most. Her father’s family hails from Saranac Lake, New York, a stone’s throw from Lake Placid, home of the 1980 Games and a place where American Winter Olympic dreams seem to exist frozen in time.

“There wasn’t one moment when I was introduced to the Olympics,” said Sweeney, whose older sister, Megan, was also an Olympic luger. “For as far back as I can remember, me and my family have driven past those ski jumps [in Lake Placid] and I’ve heard all the stories. I’m a sucker for it all. I love it. The Miracle on Ice. Everything.”

All-smiles always

There are identifiable levels to Sweeney’s smiles. The one she gives when talking about Lake Placid and her Olympic-enmeshed youth, where she first luged on wheels at age seven, can best be termed nostalgic. Maybe even wistful.

Her aunt and uncle were in the arena that night the USA beat the USSR 13 years before Sweeney was born – when a group of working-class American college kids took on the mighty Soviets and made a David-and-Goliath tale for the modern era. Her grandma drove the Swiss bobsled team back and forth from the Village to the track during the Games.

But six months after her crash outside PyoengChang, cleared to resume training in among her childhood idylls at the Olympic training center in Lake Placid, she felt nothing. There, amid all the shadows of the 1980 Games, she’d mislaid her dream.

“I was really struggling with getting back into training,” she said of those dark moments when she wondered if it was worth it and tried to find inspiration looking up at the cauldron from the 1980 Games, still holding a flame there above Lake Placid. “I’d be like ‘Oh this hurts and I can’t move. What am I even doing?’ I felt so powerless and empty. But I’d look up at the torch and I’d think of the Miracle on Ice and all the hardships they had along the way and I’d get myself going.”

Cauldron inspiration

And with all those old ghosts pushing her on, Sweeney, slowly, ever so, found her way back. Her dream returned, distilled into a kind of focus. Nothing was ever like it was before, but she hauled herself back to the top of a track, in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada on December the first 2018.

It was nine months after her crash.

“I don’t know how I did it, looking back on it now,” Sweeney said about her bronze-medal finish in Whistler to go along with her gold in Winterberg, Germany in 2017 and two more World Cup silvers (of her five overall) she’s earned since. “It was insane that I did that, but I was just sliding so well. But still, after sliding, I had to lay down on the ground. I couldn’t move. It took everything I had.”

After climbing that podium, the dream was back for real. Injuries such as hers don’t magically disappear, but a road forward was visible for Sweeney through the storm she’d endured. And there’s another point on the horizon for her at the these Games in Beijing.

Beijing second chance

“It represents an opportunity,” said Sweeney, who points to the technical challenges of the luge, rather than the adrenaline rush, as her driving interest. “It’s [Beijing 2022] another shot at earning a medal and having a good run. Not long after [the crash] I hoped I’d get another chance [at the Olympics] because that one [PyeongChang] didn’t live up to expectations.”

Sweeney admits to feeling different at the top of the track now. She still takes a series of hard breaths and gets her heart rate under control before shooting off into that uncertain country where anything can happen. She’s been scared, at times, since her crash and she’s burdened with the knowledge of how wrong it can all go.

But there’s the smile.

It never goes away, even when she’s discussing the “hardest parts” of her life. She loves the Olympics. She loves her sport, even if it does put her in the worst kind of danger. You need only hear her describe her first time on ice, age ten, to know how deep into the marrow her love of luge goes. The nerves, how the “track was glowing,” how, when asked by a radio reporter if it was all that she hoped it would be after three years on wheels, her response, a “big, cheesy smile” on her face was: “No. It’s more!”

‘Have Fun’ over ‘Good Run’

In those quiet moments in the start-house before heading to the handles at the top of the track, to the precipice where fears and reality are faced, it’s a tradition among lugers to wish their teammates a “good run.” Sweeney prefers a different, though rhyming, incantation.

“I say ‘have fun’ instead,” said Sweeney, approaching the handles at her second Olympic Games, her dream coming back into focus – not with anything to prove but, rather, with medals on her mind. “I mean, everyone is trying and working and thinking about having a good run.”

When asked by one of her younger teammates why she chose such a wish, Sweeney had to think before answering. “Because it’s more important,” she concluded, likely with a full-watt smile lighting up her face. “It’s something I’m trying to do every time I slide.”

Team USA luger Emily Sweeney
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

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