Olympic luger receives warm hometown welcome
SUFFIELD, Conn. (AP) — For most of Emily Sweeney’s life, October has meant the start of luge season — racing in a supine position on a sled without brakes at speeds of up to 90 mph through a course of icy twists and turns.
It meant months of training, travel, and living out of a suitcase in pursuit of one day competing in the Olympics.
That dream finally came true for the 2011 Suffield High School graduate and winner of numerous medals in luge when she traveled to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Winter Olympics. She was one of three women on the U.S. Olympic luge team.
Unfortunately, instead of gaining fame for winning an Olympic medal, Sweeney made the news with a scary crash in the final leg of the women’s singles luge competition on Feb. 13.
While it wasn’t the result she was hoping for, it didn’t matter to the community of Suffield, her hometown, which rallied around her in the wake of the crash and continues to show its love for their Olympian.
And since then, all everyone’s been asking her is whether she’ll be competing in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. The truth is, Sweeney doesn’t know.
“That’s a lot of life to commit,” Sweeney said. “I don’t want to do something just because it’s what I’ve done.”
Because of her uncertainty about the future, Sweeney plans to spend the next two years training and competing in luge as she always has and then consider whether it’s worth it to continue on a path to the 2022 Olympics.
At 25, Sweeney isn’t old for a luger, but her career in the sport has been long and winding, and not without its bumps.
She lost a qualifying race to her older sister Megan in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and ended up having to watch from the sidelines.
She also failed to get a spot on the 2014 Olympic luge team for the games in Sochi, Russia.
Sweeney, who lives in Lake Placid, New York, and is a sergeant in that state’s National Guard, is still recovering from the crash at the Olympics in February. She told media outlets immediately afterward that she was sore and stiff but OK. It wasn’t until later that an MRI revealed she had multiple fractures in her back.
According to Sweeney, the crash was by far the worst she ever experienced. Ironically, up until moments before the crash, the beginning of her final run was her best.
Sweeney was ranked 14th entering that race, which was lower than she had expected.
Last November, the U.S. team spent a week training with other lugers in South Korea, and Sweeney consistently finished in the top 3. When she returned in February, though, Sweeney wasn’t getting the results she had worked for.
According to Sweeney, it didn’t have anything to do with nerves. She just walked to the starting handles and grabbed them — lugers use them to rock back and forth on the sled to build momentum for the start — like she’s done every time.
But luge has so many variables. More variables mean more potential alterations to make the fastest run, and they aren’t always obvious, Sweeney said.
“Its frustrating,” she said.
When she began her final singles run in Pyeongchang, the beginning was good, leading her to steer the sled less, which may have contributed to the crash. By the time she realized she was losing control, it was too late to do anything about it. It was estimated her sled was traveling 60 mph when it crashed.
A video of the run shows Sweeney make it part way down the luge course in a competitive time. She then exits a curve and can be seen touching her feet to the ice in an attempt to keep the sled under control.
It wasn’t enough. Sweeney’s sled careened back and forth before slamming into the wall, knocking Sweeney off. Luckily, she was able to stand up and slowly walk off the course.
Sweeney told NBC in an interview two days later that physically she was OK but stiff, and emotionally she was fine.
She also said that crashes are “part of the sport. It’s part of the name of the game and I can’t dwell on it. I think if this had happened eight years ago I would have beaten myself up about it, but I think I’m a lot stronger now, so it’s OK.”
On Feb. 14, the day after the crash, she tweeted out to her fans, “Thank you for all the supportive messages! That was a rough one. I’m sore but I’m recovering. Thank you for all the positive words, I’m really feeling the love this Valentine’s Day.”
As the mother of two daughters who’ve competed in luge for over 20 years, Suzan Sweeney has seen her fair share of crashes, but most didn’t come close to the severity of Emily’s crash at the Olympics, which she was there to witness.
“It was the first time I was really scared,” she said.
She said Emily is finally getting back to normal, but the recovery process isn’t over yet. After the MRI, Emily was referred to a spine specialist who has prohibited her from “sliding” — the term lugers use for the sport — at all. Emily hopes to be cleared to slide by September.
Most important, Emily needs time, her mother said. The support of the Suffield community has helped her daughter, too, she said.
“There’s no love like hometown love,” Suzan Sweeney said.
Last Saturday, Emily Sweeney was invited to throw out the first pitches for the town’s baseball and softball Little League seasons before a crowd of a couple hundred onlookers.
Afterward, she signed autographs and took pictures with the hometown crowd. A line of fans, many of them children, quickly formed before the table where she sat, and the line didn’t dissipate for at least half an hour.
Keith Woods, a Little League board of directors member, said he thought the day was great for families and just what Suffield needed. His two children both got Sweeney’s autograph. His daughter, 12, vowed never to wash the hat Sweeney signed, he said.
Woods believes Sweeney’s story is a good one for children because she’s a regular person who made it to the Olympics through perseverance and hard work. According to Sweeney, her parents also made it possible by letting her travel for competitions starting at 14 years old, mostly without them.
Going back even further, the involvement of the Sweeney sisters in luge began when their aunt saw a recruitment ad in the newspaper seeking young athletes to train and qualify for the USA Luge Junior Development Team.
Though Emily Sweeney was too young to begin that program at the same time as her older sister, she knew just from watching Megan that luge was something she wanted to do.
“You get a rush from it,” she told the Journal Inquirer early in her career. “There is nothing else like it.”
Information from: Journal Inquirer, http://www.journalinquirer.com