Sweeney stays cool
SARANAC LAKE — Emily Sweeney is focused on staying focused.
The Lake Placid resident, Army soldier and Olympic luge racer is considered a contender for a medal in Beijing, and she doesn’t want anything to throw her off track. Catching COVID-19 could derail her, so she’s fastidious about not socializing on the luge circuit. She tries not to dwell on her horrifying crash in the 2018 Winter Olympics, although the pain still lingers — the neck ache was bad enough that she skipped a World Cup race Jan. 16. She also refuses to get excited about her second Olympics until she, her teammates and coaches are safely on the ground in Beijing.
“I don’t lean into excitement very often,” she told reporters in a Jan. 10 video call. “So much of our training is bringing everything down.”
She relies on this self-discipline every time she pushes off from the top of an icy chute.
“I think everyone has their own routines,” she said. “For me, I clear my mind completely because you can’t have any distractions while you’re going down the track.” Her goal is “being in that free space, which luge has always been that for me. And even now — as much as we’re in the craziness of Olympic year, of still in a pandemic, of all these things — every time you sit on the sled and roll off the handles, you’re in the zone.”
Lugers used to socialize a lot on the World Cup tour, but amid the pandemic these last two seasons, they mostly stay apart. Sweeney implied she is more cautious than most.
“It’s probably annoying to some people, but I’m just so aware of the red flags of COVID,” she said. “We see it everywhere: Athletes are getting COVID, family, friends, everyone is testing positive, and that freaks me out. I keep thinking of all the crappy situations I got through to get to this point, and that just feels like such a big risk, to be existing in this world right now. Because I have that dream, I have that second bid in my grasp — I’m alarmingly aware of it.”
She admits this isolation is “not ideal” for team spirit.
“We do our best when we’re together and having fun and joking, and I have a hard time with that right now, because of what’s at stake,” she said.
Hooked as a kid
Sweeney’s father Larry is from Saranac Lake, graduating from high school here in 1975, but she was born in her mother Sue’s home state of Maine. She decided at age 7 she wanted to be a luge Olympian after seeing her older sister Megan try the sport. To this day, Emily says Megan “is probably the person I look up to the most.”
It wasn’t until Emily was 10 that she got to try luge herself, on a wheeled sled.
“I remember being asked by a radio reporter, ‘Was it everything you expected it to be?'” she told NBC. “My cheesy but completely genuine response was, ‘No, it’s more.’ I was hooked.”
Emily’s family moved to Connecticut when she was 10, and soon afterward, Megan started competitive luge in Lake Placid. Emily followed a few years later and quickly was neck-and-neck with her sister. They found themselves in a race-off to qualify for the 2010 Olympics. Megan won, barely. Emily went to the games as an alternate. She was 16.
Four years later, Emily failed to qualify for the 2014 games. She was crushed and left the sport for a bit, but she roared back with her best results yet over the next few seasons, including several podium finishes. Her Olympic dream came true in 2018, but then came that spectacular crash. She brushed it off, saying she was fine, but she wasn’t. She had broken bones in her back and neck.
Recovery was hard. Her spine still can’t take the pressure it once could, either from workouts or luge G-forces. She experienced depression, she told the Associated Press, but she also rallied. Her parents describe her as stubborn and analytical in overcoming obstacles. In 2018-19 she enjoyed eight top-10 finishes including two podiums, one in the World Championship. The strong results continued, and this season she had two solo top 10s despite missing five of the 12 races: one in a crash, one for neck pain, and three because the Army would not let her compete in Russia.
“I’ve shown that I have a lot of speed,” she said.
Now she just has to put four great runs together at the Olympic track in Yanquing.
‘Be in the moment’
Reporters keep asking about the 2018 crash, but she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“I turned that part of my brain off, just ’cause it’s draining for me to go back there,” she said.
Instead, she wants to put her brain in that “free space” she experiences while sliding.
“I’m looking forward to that moment when I can just let it go and just be in the moment — but that won’t happen until I’m in China,” she said.
“At the end of the day, it’s still you on a sled.”