From broken to bronze
Emily Sweeney could barely stand on a treadmill a few months ago. After four minutes of walking, the U.S. Olympic luge athlete had to lie down because of the searing pain that was spasming through her neck.
She was battered and broken.
That didn’t matter this weekend.
Barely nine months removed from fracturing her neck and back — injuries suffered in a frightening crash at the Pyeongchang Olympics, and ones she hadn’t revealed widely until now — Sweeney won the women’s bronze medal at a World Cup race in Whistler, British Columbia, on Saturday. And even she didn’t think doing so well in her first race of the season was possible.
“It’s funny. So many people that I talked to would say, ‘You’re crazy to get back on the thing that broke your neck and your back and whatever,'” Sweeney said. “But to be honest, it scared me more to not get back on. I didn’t want to go through my life with such a terrible ending to luge and I didn’t want to be afraid of anything. I really didn’t have a choice. I had to come back.”
The bones have healed.
The pain is still there, almost constantly.
The 25-year-old wakes up sore every day, is still dealing with tightness in her neck and back, and the muscles around the injured areas have not yet returned to normal because she had to basically cease training for six months after the crash. When Sweeney did some interviews by phone after her bronze-medal performance, she had to do so while lying on the floor to help relieve pressure on her back.
“There’s good days and bad days,” Sweeney said. “I’ll put it this way. There’s been one afternoon since I crashed, one afternoon about a month ago when I was in Lake Placid, when I didn’t feel anything in my body was like screaming at me. There’s been a couple hours where I have not felt the effects of that crash. It’s been a very long nine, 10 months now.”
Sweeney said after the crash that she was sore but fine.
She wasn’t lying. That was the original diagnosis, which proved incorrect.
She walked off the track that night at the Alpensia Sliding Centre, not knowing how badly injured she was. The crash was horrible — she wobbled off-line in the track’s most treacherous spot, unsuccessfully trying to slow down and regain control. By then, she was careening wildly and crashed feet-first into the lip atop the track, got thrown off her sled at probably close to 75 mph and her body skidded down the ice to a stop.
Watching on giant screens near the finish line, Sweeney’s mother and fellow luger Erin Hamlin’s mother grabbed at each other in fear and disbelief. Sweeney eventually got up and X-rays performed that night, along with an MRI taken the next day, both came back clean. Subsequent tests, however, revealed the back and neck fractures that she kept largely under wraps.
“I didn’t want to come out and say ‘Hey, look at me, I broke myself,'” Sweeney said. “The Olympics were still going on and I didn’t want to throw anything else in there. I wanted people who were still competing and having their own moments to have them … I just went home and kind of stayed quiet for a little while.”
Her offseason training was limited. Sweeney was dealing with physical limitations and mental challenges as well. She decided to spend the last few weeks training with USA Luge’s junior team, skipping the first two women’s World Cup races of the year in Austria. Even going into Saturday, Sweeney had no expectations.
“If you had told me at any point before this week that I was going to be on the podium, I would have laughed in your face,” Sweeney said.
She was wrong. Only a pair of stars from the powerhouse German team — reigning Olympic champion Natalie Geisenberger and Julia Taubitz — finished ahead of Sweeney, who now has the third-fastest time recorded by any woman on the track that was built for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
For a moment, the pain was gone.
“It was so challenging for me, both mentally and physically,” Sweeney said. “To have a result like this my first race back, it’s pretty crazy.”