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Highlight: Luge Athlete Sgt. Emily Sweeney Perseveres through Heartache, Injury to Compete in 2018 Olympics
Sgt. Emily Sweeney has participated in the USA luge program since age 10. She will make her Olympic debut in PyeongChang next month. (Image courtesy of Brett West, U. S. Army)
LAKE PLACID, New York -- Whether she'd posted a personal-best time, or suffered a collision on the track, Emily Sweeney would flash her trademark smile to fans, media, or anyone who watched her compete. Even when sliding during frigid winter storms in challenging conditions, the New York National Guard Soldier kept smiling.
But for six months during the winter and spring of 2014, that bright-eyed grin couldn't hide bitter disappointment.
A charismatic Olympic hopeful, Sweeney had entered the 2013 World Cup season as a favorite to make the 2014 Winter Games. When Sweeney lost the final spot on the 2014 U.S. Luge Team, missing the Olympics for the second time, she shut herself off from the sport to which she had dedicated most of her life.
"It's something that I've wanted for so long and it's something that's very tangible for me," said Sweeney, who in December, finally qualified to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
For Sweeney, the road to PyeongChang could be described as anything but easy.
TOUGH MATCHUP HITS CLOSE TO HOME
Photos and murals of past Olympians adorn the walls of the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center. Medals of previous Olympic greats in bobsled, figure skating and luge sit encased in the facility's trophy room.
Some former Olympic competitors still work at the facility, including former silver medalist Gordy Sheer, Team USA's director of marketing and sponsorship. Sweeney, like other Olympic hopefuls, spent much of her youth here.
As a seven-year-old, Sweeney idolized her older sister, Megan, who competed in the luge program at the junior levels. Emily later joined the USA Luge program herself, after participating in a "slider search" in Rhode Island at age 10. Her sister remained a hero to her.
"I wouldn't be here or be the person I am today without her," Emily said. "I was really pushed by Megan from early on because I saw the potential of what I could be through her and that was really inspiring to me."
After she turned 16, Sweeney showcased tremendous speed on luge tracks across the globe. And she demonstrated enormous potential in the sport in her first year competing.
During the 2009 World Cup season, Sweeney built her luge resume by nabbing Norton Junior World Champion honors and earning bronze medals at the Junior World Cup in Winterberg, Germany and a gold medal at Park City, Utah.
And during the 2009 season, Emily began to beat her older sister and some of her national team peers during practice runs and some competitions. During one World Cup competition in Park City, Utah, she called her parents with concerns about competing with her sister and hero.
"She was very upset," said Sweeney's mother, Sue. "She was worried that she was going to beat Megan in the race and it would be the end of Megan's (Olympic bid)."
Dreams of the Olympics, of course, had always been on her sister's mind, and her own as well.
"I've always wanted that moment of walking in on opening ceremonies," said Sweeney. "That is the epitome of what I want ... to walk in with my whole team and have 'USA' on our backs."
Later that year, during the final World Cup competition in Lillehammer, the final two spots for the 2010 Olympic team came down to two competitors. Both wore the name "Sweeney" on their uniforms.
While jarred by the prospect of beating her idol, Emily made a pact with her sister to leave everything on the floor on their next competition.
Emily went on to lose to her sister in a race off at the Olympiacenter in Norway, falling by two tenths of a second. Due to a medical waiver, another team member took the final spot for the 2010 Vancouver team, while Emily remained on stand-by as an Olympic alternate. Emily still traveled to British Columbia to cheer on her sister from the stands.
"Going to the Olympics and watching her was difficult," Emily said. "I'm glad I went, I'm glad I supported her. I wouldn't have changed that for the world. But it was tough standing on the other side of the track watching my dream happen."
After she missed a shot at Vancouver, Emily would make a life decision that would set the foundation for life after luge.
AN ATHLETE AND A SOLDIER
Jack Sweeney, Emily's grandfather, had long been an inspiration in Emily's life. While she would prepare meals for him, he'd relay stories to her about his days in the Navy. Emily said her grandfather instilled in her a sense of pride for her country and also inspired her to join the Army National Guard.
Joining the military sparked a change in Emily. She often took a leadership role during basic combat training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. She did the same during her advanced individual training there, where she learned to be a military policeman. She even graduated with honors from the Army's military police school.
Once in the Army, Emily also opted to join the World Class Athlete Program.
"I thought it was a great avenue of opportunity," Emily said of her decision to join the Army. "I knew I wanted to continue being an athlete, but I didn't want to only be an athlete. I wanted something else to pursue beyond my athletic career."
After joining the Guard, Emily became more of a leader for USA Luge as well, not only competing for the program, but also helping the program identify and recruit talented youth to the sport during talent searches.
SOCHI SLIPS AWAY
Around Thanksgiving 2013, Sweeney knew it. Her parents, as they checked at the World Cup standings online also knew: Emily would not be competing at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
A season that began with promise, instead led to complications with her sled, dealing with minor injuries and slower finish times on the World Cup circuit.
After her final races had finished for 2013, Sweeney sat in her hotel room. Her boyfriend, Italian luge team member Dominik Fischnaller, brought her a cup of her favorite ice cream.
And then for six months, Sweeney walked away from the sport to which she had dedicated a great chunk of her childhood. Instead of weight training and spending hours on the track, Sweeney removed herself from any luge or exercise activities. Instead, she retreated to her home in Lake Placid and contemplated her future in the sport.
"I went from being an Olympic hopeful, training at 100 percent," Emily said, "to just stopping everything.
"I was really at a point where I said, 'What's the point?' What's the point of doing this if I'm not getting the results I'm wanting?' It took a while, I closed myself off."
She began working as a waitress and hostess at local restaurants. And while she'd visit her ailing grandfather in neighboring Saranac Lake, she mostly cut herself off from family and dealt with struggles the best way she knew: internally.
"We lost her for a while," Sue said. "It was tough. She didn't even watch the (2014 Winter) Games."
"Emily had to refine her sliding and her motivation," Megan said. "It took her a long time. But I think that's normal when you have a dream and become so disappointed ... It was very, very tough because she knows she's good."
THE ARMY GETS HER ROLLING
In May 2014, Emily remained withdrawn from the luge community. The Army provided just the wakeup call she needed to get back on track with her sport.
She received orders to attend Warrior Leader Course (now the Basic Leader Course) that spring at Fort Dix, New Jersey. During the month-long course, she took tests on her leadership skills, land navigation and various drills to prepare to become a noncommissioned officer.
After giving up her strict luge-related training routine and regular exercising, Emily had lost muscle mass. She'd dropped 20 pounds from her 5-foot-5-inch frame. As a result, for the first time since enlisting in the Guard, she failed to score a 300 on her Army Physical Fitness Test.
"(WLC) kind of pulled me out," said Sweeney. "It gave me a schedule that I had to adhere to again. I kind of got back into the military mode and then after that I got back into my training."
Shortly after graduating WLC, Sweeney resumed luge-related activities. She began lifting weights again, and changed her routine, and began working out at a special training gym in Plainville, Connecticut. There Sweeney took part in grueling gymnastics-based training to strengthen her core muscles using various gymnastics apparatus pieces including rings, the high bar and parallel bars.
"It definitely put me in my place pretty quickly," Sweeney said.
The old Emily had returned, away from the luge track too. She began reconnecting with friends. She spoke with family members more often.
And that familiar smile came back.
"Everybody always kids her about her smile -- she always has a big smile on her face," said her mother, Sue. "But it's true -- it's part of who she is. Once you start to see her smile coming back, you know she's starting to feel much more like herself."
In December 2015, during World Cup competition on their home track in Lake Placid, Sweeney and teammates Erin Hamlin and Summer Britcher swept the field. It marked the first time the U.S. women knocked out the dominant German team.
"We're more of a force to be reckoned with now," Sweeney said.
During a fall, Sweeney suffered injury to her wrist that required surgery in 2016, proving to be a minor setback. But she bounced back to stellar marks in 2017.
"The (wrist) injury really didn't worry me," USA Luge coach Bill Tavares said. "For her it was all mental. When I knew that she was mentally strong coming into this year then there was no worry on my part."
HITTING HER STRIDE
The 4,242-foot luge course in Winterberg, Germany presents a daunting challenge to competitive lugers. Those who accept its challenge must enter the course's labyrinth in near-perfect form. In November, Sweeney and her USA teammates traveled to Winterberg to face the mighty German team that built an Olympic juggernaut on this course.
At the track's midpoint, a turn drops competitors into the labyrinth where sled speeds multiply. After placing second earlier in the World Cup competition at on this track, mishaps on one of her runs sent Sweeney tumbling out of contention and she thought she missed her chance to clinch an Olympic berth.
But then she bounced back later that day to take her first World Cup gold in the sprint race, upsetting 2014 Olympic champion, Germany's Natalie Geisenberger, on her home course. Instead, her shot at an Olympic berth would have to wait.
When dealing with the difficult highs and lows of competing against the best in the world, she turned to Grandpa Sweeney. Emily said her grandfather helped keep her grounded and objective while remaining committed to her family and country.
"He's probably a big part of her personality," Sue said. "He's always been one of her best friends. And she's looked to him for advice."
As Sweeney begins final preparations for the Winter Games, she will do so with a heavy heart. Jack Sweeney passed away at age 88 on Jan. 3. Emily said her grandfather helped keep her grounded and objective while remaining committed to her family and country.
OLYMPIAN AT LAST
Sweeney learned that she had reached the pinnacle of her career unceremoniously -- not by an announcement on the track, or from posting a career-best time -- but in a text.
Dec. 14, after having dinner with her parents and returning to the Lake Placid training facility, Sweeney received a message from her mother, Sue.
"See you in PyeongChang," the text read.
Sweeney's mother had been tracking the Nation's Cup live stream on her phone. The Nation's Cup was a pre-qualifying event for the World Cup later that week. Had Raychel Germaine qualified for the World Cup, she could have potentially knocked Emily out of Olympic competition. But she didn't, and the final Olympic women's luge slot went to Emily.
Emily texted back, "Wow."
"It was just a peaceful moment," Sweeney said, "I was stunned."
She received congratulations from Fischnaller, her boyfriend of eight years. Then came a flood of 30 messages and well wishes from family, friends and teammates.
"I'm really happy for her," teammate Summer Britcher said. "I know how hard she works. I'm very happy that she's met this goal and I'm really excited to compete alongside her in (32) days."
Sweeney will join 2014 Bronze medalist Hamlin and Britcher on the USA roster in PyeongChang in February. The impact of reaching her dream did not hit her until after finishing World Cup competition in the women's sprint race Dec. 16, Sue Sweeney said.
A heavy snow blanketed Lake Placid's Mount Van Hoevenberg Dec. 16, and athletes faced a wind chill so bitter that exposed fingers and toes could feel like frozen blocks of ice. During the women's sprint race, Sweeney posted an efficient run in these slick conditions, but a mishap at turn seven hurt her final time, eventually knocking her out of sprint qualification. Unfazed, she posted a better time in her second run.
The weight of realizing her Olympic dream began to creep in. Still clad in her helmet and orange and blue uniform, Sweeney waved to her 80 supporters, family and friends. And once more she flashed her wide grin.
"Emily's missed two Olympic teams very narrowly," Sheer said. "In 2014 ... that was a real tough one for her. It takes a certain type of person to be able to bounce back from something like that and to be able to keep fighting and I give her all the credit in the world."
Then after 15 minutes of speaking with local and national media members, Sweeney locked arms with her older sister, rosy-cheeked from the stinging wind chill. Standing amid swirling snowflakes, Megan whispered into her younger sister's ear:
"I'm so proud of you," Megan said.
NEXT STOP: SOUTH KOREA
When Emily dons the USA colors at PyeongChang next month, she knows he will be representing more than herself. She will also represent WCAP, the National Guard and the U.S. Army. Sweeney, who currently ranks eighth in the International Luge Federation women's singles, will join fellow WCAP athletes Matt Mortensen in men's doubles and singles competitor Taylor Morris.
At 24, the Olympics will wrap Sweeney's fourteenth year in the sport and she plans to bring home a medal for her team.
"Going to the Olympics isn't enough for me," Sweeney said "I want to go to the Olympics and do something. So it's not over -- the work isn't over."
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