Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates the outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Luger Summer Britcher won Female Athlete of the Month for January 2018, during which she became the all-time singles victory leader in USA Luge history and won three medals en route to finishing third in the overall world cup standings. In Britcher’s Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, she discusses her journey to the top of the luge world.
The realization streaked through Summer Britcher’s mind with all the smoothness and force of a luge tearing over an icy track.
If I have two good runs tomorrow, I’m going to win, Britcher told herself as she sat calmly in her hotel room in Lillehammer, Norway, the night before she became the all-time singles victory leader for USA Luge.
That simple conclusion — and the fact that it occurred to her — gave the 23-year-old a shock. It was not something she would have thought even a few years ago, a time Britcher cites as the mental low point in her career.
“The hardest thing I’ve had to overcome has been self doubt and low self-esteem,” she said. “It took me hitting rock bottom with how I spoke to myself or thought of myself to realize that it wasn’t right or healthy.”
The sleds were made of plastic, and the hill wasn’t exactly stacked, but it made a deep impression on 11-year-old Summer Britcher — and she on it.
Britcher was enjoying a day on the slopes with her family not far from her hometown in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, in 2007 when they came across the USA Luge Challenge, which was set up to give kids an introduction to the sport.
“They had made banked turns in the snow and put in a professional timing system,” she remembered. “It was really cool. You could take as many training runs during the day as you wanted before the scheduled race time, you just had to be willing to walk up the hill.”
Most people did a few runs. As Britcher recalls it, she did a few dozen.
“I was determined to beat my older brothers,” she said. “I must have walked up that hill a thousand times, trying to figure out ways I could make it down the course faster.”
Her competitiveness caught the eye of 1998 Olympic silver medalist Gordy Sheer, now head of marketing at USA Luge. Sheer, who was on hand that day for the event, saw Britcher hiking up the hill for the umpteenth time and switched to recruiter mode. That’s how Britcher found herself in Lake Placid, New York, trying out for the U.S. development team.
She stuck with it, eventually choosing luge over soccer, volleyball and skiing. Five years later, she was competing at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, where she won a gold medal in the team relay, which at the time was up for inclusion at forthcoming Olympic Games.
Summer Britcher looks on after the women's sprint competition at the Viessmann FIL Luge World Cup at Lake Placid Olympic Center on Dec. 16, 2017 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Afterward, she was introduced to Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who had been on hand to watch.
“I might have imagined it but I swear he gave us a nod, like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s in’ (for the Games),” Britcher said. “The Youth Olympic Games were incredible. Just to have that, at such a young age, surrounded by your peers, all of you sharing the dream of making it to the big kid Games one day, is quite an experience.”
At that time, practices could go wonderfully. But when the lights were on, Britcher sometimes struggled.
“I spent years at the junior level having perfect training runs, and then messing up horribly in races before learning how to keep a level head under pressure,” she said. “My key to success has been to focus on the process not the result. It’s easy to get caught up in the fantasy of winning races, but I’ve found that with that comes a fear of failure that is almost always self-fulfilling.”
One of the last things Britcher learned in luge was how to apply the brakes to her own mind. When she would find herself getting caught up imagining standing at the top of a medal podium while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, she would stop and ask herself what she needed to do, what she needed to change.
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“It’s scary to be sitting in podium contention partway through a race, and I’ve seen a lot of athletes crack under the pressure, but if your goal for the day is to be the best on the track, not to be the winner, it makes all the difference,” she said. “Following that realization it was just a slow process of training myself to think differently and to love myself. It’s an ongoing process. It wasn’t until I got to a healthy place mentally that I was able to let go of my fear of failure and just enjoy this awesome sport I do.”
If I have two good runs, I’m going to win.
“I was very calm, but also didn’t really know how to handle that thought,” Britcher recalled of the night before the race in Lillehammer. “I didn’t know if I should ignore it or talk to my coaches or call my sports psychologist or just say it out loud. The other times I’d been on the podium it had been a bit of a surprise. I knew they were possibilities but slim ones, so this was very new territory to me.”
This time, there was nothing else she needed to do, nothing she had to change: she came out on top in the two-heat singles race, her fourth career victory. She added her fifth 24 hours later in the sprint race.
Her victories in Lillehammer locked up a third place overall finish on the world cup circuit, and she returned to the U.S. to prepare for her second Olympic Winter Games with a globe trophy in her suitcase.
Britcher’s goal to be the best on the track remains the same heading into PyeongChang, where she’ll be competing among the close-knit international luge community after fourth-place finishes at the last two world championships.
If she needs to apply the brakes to her mind before the race, she might think about the period after the Games, when she’ll go home and share the Olympic joy with all the people who support her.
“Then I have tentative plans to sail from Key West to Tampa with my brother, so that should be quite an adventure,” she added. “Right now I’m planning to take a bit more time off this spring before getting back to training, but I’ve said that before, and it’s always turned out to be a lie.”
Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor toTeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.