The roller-coaster design of a luge course offers a fairly apt description of Emily Sweeney’s career path in the high-intensity sledding sport.
Just as the course features high speeds, harrowing curves and ever-present danger, the Portland native has steered her way to top world championship finishes, Olympic qualification, competitive disappointments and horrific crashes.
The 28-year-old Sweeney now is at rest during the World Cup holiday break, but soon she’ll return to pursuing a second straight Olympic berth for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing that begin Feb. 4.
Women’s luge competition is set for Feb. 7.
“I don’t have any plans beyond February,” said Sweeney, who made her Olympic debut in 2018 at Pyeongchang, South Korea, only to crash during her final run. “Everything is being planned and focused toward February and then after Beijing 2022 I’ll figure out what my next steps are.”
Much like her competitive ups and downs since making her first luge run at age 10, Sweeney’s current season has been a mix of lost equipment, being sidelined for two World Cup races, and recent results that suggest she is ready to return to the Olympic stage.
And despite political conditions that have prompted the United States, Canada, Australia and Great Britain to declare a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics and a resurgence in COVID-19 that has led the National Hockey League to pull its players out of the games, Sweeney is determined to compete in Beijing if she qualifies.
“I expect some people to drop out by choice and then some by unfortunate circumstances,” she said. “At this point, I’m just doing everything I can to not be one of those unfortunate circumstances because I know I want to be there and I know I want to do the best I can with this opportunity.”
Sweeney, who attended school in Falmouth before moving with her family to Suffield, Connecticut, became the first U.S. woman to earn a top-five World Cup finish this season, placing fifth at Altenberg, Germany, on Dec. 11.
With that performance Sweeney took a step toward earning her Olympic berth by securing Tier A qualification despite missing the previous two World Cup weekends in Sochi, Russia.
A member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, she was prevented from entering Russia based on a U.S. Department of Defense mandate and instead spent that time training in Germany.
“All that kept going through my mind were zeroes, just knowing I had zero opportunity to get the qualification we need for the Olympic team, and also just points,” said Sweeney, who trained without her full complement of luge equipment after 33 boxes of sleds and other gear were stuck in China after the season-opening World Cup stop in Yanqing just before Thanksgiving.
Sweeney added a sixth-place finish last weekend at Igls, Austria, with the World Cup tour now idle until New Year’s weekend in Winterberg, Germany.
“It’s been wild,” she said. “I think the unique thing about this year is that the challenges have come from every angle. But I’ve been able to come back and get my [Tier A] and really have been showing some speed so I’m excited about that looking forward.”
Sweeney followed older sister Megan into competitive luge, trying the sport for the first time at a USA Luge slider search in upstate New York.
Sweeney soon began competing in junior and senior World Cup events and made her first attempt at an Olympic berth at age 16 in 2010 but lost out on the final Team USA slot in a race-off that included her older sister – with Megan going on to finish 22nd at the Vancouver Winter Games.
“My sister was really my main source of inspiration and the person I looked up to within the sport,” Sweeney said. “She really showed me what could be done at a really young age, just her level of dedication and work ethic. From there it’s just been trying to figure out my own way through the sport.”
Sweeney won the 2013 junior world championship but came up short of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team for the 2014 Sochi Games.
Four years later she achieved her Olympic goal, qualifying for the U.S. team that competed in South Korea. But as Sweeney made her final run she lost control of her sled on a particularly difficult corner of the track and suffered multiple injuries, including two broken bones in her back, a badly sprained ankle and a concussion.
The crash sidelined her for six months, but Sweeney bounced back to capture a bronze medal at the 2019 world championships.
COVID-19 derailed half of last season and when USA Luge athletes did return they struggled against European counterparts that raced throughout the winter. Sweeney still finished seventh at the 2021 world championships in late January.
After starting slowly at this season’s World Cup debut at Yanqing, Sweeney has been focused on returning to China for the biggest luge event of all despite knowing her family will have to watch from afar as no foreign spectators will be allowed at the Beijing Games due to COVID concerns.
“Knowing that our families aren’t going to be there, of course that’s going to be challenging and I think it’s really going to be challenging for them as well,” Sweeney said. “I’m happy that it sounds like people are going to be getting together stateside, safely of course, and cheer us on from there.
“It’s going to look completely different [but in] asking is it worth it, for now? Absolutely.”
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