PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Some athletes bond over similar tastes in music, food or interests.
Emily Sweeney and Taylor Morris bonded over crushing disappointment.
Now they’re sharing the joy and wonder of being first-time Olympians in the sport of luge at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Sweeney, 24, missed making two previous Olympic teams. In 2010 she was beaten in a race-off for the final Team USA spot by her own sister. Then in 2014 a combination of injury, equipment change and her own demons derailed her.
Morris, 26, lost his shot at the Sochi 2014 team by four-thousandths of a second. To put that in perspective, a blink of an eye takes about 100 times longer.
“To be with here with Taylor, I’m really emotional about it,” said Sweeney, who will compete in women’s singles. “It’s extra special because I remember January (2014), I’d call him, and say, ‘Hey man, what are you doing?’ He’s like, ‘I’m vacuuming, I can’t stop vacuuming.’ I’m like, ‘I know.’ It turns your life upside down when you’ve worked so hard.
“To be here eight years after my first attempt at making the team, I truly feel like I have earned this.”
Sweeney was only 16 years old in the run-up to the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010. Her older sister, Megan, was 22. Two days before the Olympic team would be named, they found out there were three contenders for one remaining spot. Megan was first, Emily second and Kate Hansen came in third.
Sweeney went to Vancouver to support her sister. During the competition, Sweeney said. “It was difficult being there and watching, I was literally standing on one side of the track, watching my dream play out on the other side of the track.
“But I wouldn’t change anything, I’m so happy I was there to support her and witness her in her moment. It was difficult, but that’s just life.”
Another Rough Ride Four Years Later
She took solace in the fact that she was only 16 and had a bright future ahead. Sweeney became the 2013 junior world champion and seemed on track for Sochi.
“A lot of people were surprised when I didn’t make the team in 2014,” said Sweeney, counting herself among them. “I think I really didn’t address some of my feelings about what happened four years ago in 2010, so that kind of caught up with me, and just changing some equipment. There are so many variables and with such a small margin of error, things just didn’t come together for me.
“And not making the team was extremely difficult. There’s no way of sugarcoating it. At the time, there’s no silver lining. You’re just crushed. And it took me a while to come back from that.”
Morris knew the feeling.
Racing in a world cup in Winterberg, Germany, he needed a top-15 finish to qualify for Team USA in men’s singles. The weather was poor, so the event was shortened from two runs to one.
Morris finished 16th. To make matters worse, it was his own teammate, Chris Mazdzer, who slid into 15th place, .004 ahead of him.
“When you come close to making your ultimate dream come true and then missing that, it’s pretty devastating,” Morris said.
He got a little choked up at a pre-Games press conference talking about the experience.
“My friends and my family, the support back home (in South Jordan, Utah), they really helped me get back up on the horse,” said Morris.
And Sweeney was there for him, too. Both are members of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program and had to report to Fort Carson in Colorado.
“We got kind of pushed out of the program because we weren’t Olympic hopefuls any more,” Sweeney said. “You show up to your headquarters, you show up to your unit, and they know why you’re there. You’re there because you didn’t make the team.”
“We were feeling beaten down,” Morris added. “And it was helpful to have somebody there that has been through that experience and we can kind of understand each other in that sense.”
Sweeney was in a funk for five or six months. She only watched one day of the 2014 Games – the second day of women’s luge to see teammate Erin Hamlin win the bronze medal.
“Erin’s like family to me,” she said.
Changing her environment when the military called helped jump-start Sweeney, who is in the National Guard.
Getting Back On The Sled
“There was never really the thought of stopping,” she said. “I just knew that I had to take my time with it and then I knew that I was going to come back. I knew that I wasn’t done and I knew that I had the potential and the ability to become and Olympian and I was going to do that – it was just not going to happen that year.”
Sweeney has won three world cup silver medals since Sochi and also has a gold medal to her credit.
“Four years later I wasn’t nervous during this Olympic trials process,” she said. “I felt so much more confident and there wasn’t doubt.”
Morris said he didn’t watch 99 percent of the 2014 Games. “I just couldn’t turn it on, it hurt so bad,” he said.
At least Morris could look forward to marrying his wife Megan in May 2014. But he wasn’t ready to close the book on his luge career. While thinking about it made him want to vacuum – “I can’t stop cleaning,” he told Sweeney – he still yearned to clean up on the luge circuit.
Morris was determined to fulfill a dream he’d had since watching Michael Johnson win the 200- and 400-meter at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996.
“That stuck with me and has resonated with me my entire life that I wanted to be like him,” Morris said. “So when I was 6 years old, I stopped eating cookies, I stopped eating cakes. I started drinking milk. I kept asking my mom, ‘Hey, would Michael Johnson be eating this?’ If she’d say no, I’d give it to my little brother. I changed my life because of him. I would love to meet him. He’s been a sports idol for me and someone I looked up to for a very long time. I found an avenue to get my way into the Olympic Games – and I’m here.”
In 2014, Aidan Kelly got the third Team USA Olympic berth instead of Morris.
When Morris finally made the Olympic team last December in Lake Placid, New York, Kelly was doing the commentary on the live stream.
“I went back and I watched it,” Morris said, “because at that point, it wasn’t real. So I just wanted to go watch it again and be like, ‘OK, I really did it, it’s on film.’”
Morris, who’d already won a bronze medal in the Lake Placid world cup sprint race for his first career world cup medal, took fifth place to hold off Jonny Gustafson. He said he heard Kelly say on the live stream that he was happy for him and he deserved it.
“It means a lot coming from him as well,” Morris said.
And naturally, Morris felt for Gustafson, his roommate and a good friend.
“He’s a tough kid and I know how heartbreaking that can be,” Morris said. “And he’s got an incredible future ahead of him. He’s got a lot of talent and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
As both Morris and Sweeney know, there’s always next time.