Six months ago, luge seemed like a far-off reality for Emily Sweeney. The 2018 Olympian was in the process of recovering from a horrific crash in her final run on the PyeongChang track.
At the Lake Placid World Cup, Sweeney’s crash seemed like a distant memory. In third place after her first run of women’s singles, Sweeney fell just short of the podium, finishing fourth behind a German sweep of 2018 Olympic silver medalist Dajana Eitberger (1:27.674), two-time Olympic singles champion Natalie Geisenberger (1:27.705), and Julia Taubitz (1:27.929), who won the Calgary World Cup last weekend. Eitberger broke Summer Britcher’s track record first run, lowering it from 43.878 to 43.789.
Sweeney’s time of 1:27.943 led a 4-5-6 USA sweep, with Britcher in fifth and Brittney Arndt in a career-best sixth.
“We like being in a row like that, but we prefer when it’s 1-2-3,” said Britcher, who would bust up the German podium party in the afternoon sprint.
This is the first world cup season for 20-year-old Arndt.
It’s also the first world cup season in over a decade without Olympic bronze medalist Erin Hamlin, who retired after the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. Now married and living in Fargo, North Dakota, Hamlin returned to Lake Placid for this season’s world cup races and did a farewell run on the track yesterday.
Asked if she missed luge, Hamlin said she was good, then joked, “my neck is far too weak now,” after she felt the G forces in the track’s curves.
For Sweeney, it’s been a long road back from that crash in PyeongChang. It happened on her fourth and final run on the Olympic track. She careened feet first into the wall, then ricocheted to the bottom of the track, where she smashed her head.
Initially, she walked away from the crash, reassuring her family, teammates, and friends that she was all right — even flashing her big smile. But further examination showed that she had broken two vertebrae in her back — C7 at the base of her neck and T8 in her mid-thoracic spine.
Through the pain, Sweeney trained for luge over the summer but struggled with motivation. Before her first run down a track in early October, she was nervous, but not to slide.
“I was more nervous about how I was going to react emotionally after the run,” she said. “I wasn’t nervous thinking I was going to crash and hurt myself. That wasn’t in my mind. It was more of a ‘is this going to be worth it?’ Because it was hard, it was really hard. It was more of a ‘am I going to enjoy this enough to make it worth all the hurt?’”
Sweeney skipped the first FIL World Cup in Innsbruck, Austria, to train. She joined the tour at the Whistler track in Canada, where she finished third. Last weekend in Calgary, she was sixth.
In Lake Placid, Sweeney was third after the first run. But second run, she bumped the wall at the start and fell to fourth. After working on her neck between races, she finished fourth in the afternoon sprint race as well.
“She had a long way to go [after her crash] and she did a really good job,” said head U.S. luge coach Bill Tavares. “We have a good program set up for her. Our goal is world championships. She’s way ahead of the game, so we’re happy right now.”
But Sweeney won’t say that she’s back.
“People said that after my first race [in Whistler],” she said on the eve of the Lake Placid World Cup. “But it’s not the same as before. I’m handling things well, it’s going well. I never would have expected these results. But I don’t,” she paused, … maybe I just don’t want to say that I’m back. Maybe I have something against that. I don’t know. I don’t feel that way yet.”
After dwelling on it, Sweeney realized that she will never be back to the person that she was. And that’s not a bad thing.
“We’re never the same after something like that,” she said of her accident in PyeongChang. “But I think that I’m stronger. I’m much stronger in some other areas and still working on some things.”
Asked what’s changed, Sweeney now realizes that she simply has to race like she trains.
“I don’t think I need to do anything special to try to make it onto that podium,” she said after her race. “I just need to perform the way I can perform. Whereas before, I wasn’t confident in that. I was trying to push it that extra bit, and I don’t need that extra bit. … I don’t need anything special. I’m good, as simple as that sounds. I’m enough.”
For Britcher, she has flirted with the world cup podium this season, with a fourth, fifth, and one sixth place finish in world cup races. In the morning singles race, she finished fifth again. But the cold, fast ice in Lake Placid helped her finally reach the podium in the sprint world cup.
Britcher, 24, won a silver medal in the sprint, finishing 0.078 of a second behind Geisenberger and another hundredth ahead of Taubitz.
“It feels fantastic,” said Britcher. “Not the race I wanted this morning. I just regrouped and said this is my home track, I have a million runs here, but it’s very rare to get a chance to slide on it when it’s like this.”
Britcher too is recovering from the Olympics. But it’s more mental recovery. She set the track record in PyeongChang on her second run but then finished 19th overall.
“Just knowing that I have the track record, it does make the pain of the rest of the Olympics way worse,” she admitted. “But it’s the one positive that I take from the experience.”
“What she didn’t realize was how much confidence we had in her going into it,” said Coach Tavares, of Britcher’s Olympic experience. “She’s fast. And she’s not that old of an athlete for us, she has a long way to go. She’s progressing so fast, I think she expects a lot more than what she can produce right now. But it’s coming along. She’s going to be something to watch.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.