Two-time Olympic luge athlete Emily Sweeney is highly experienced – in triumph as well as tragedy. She’s been through the hardest of times, and today she says, “I’m not anything close to the person I was before.”
Not the same. Just better.
With the opener of the World Cup season coming up fast here on her home track at Mt Van Hoevenberg and with virtually everything in her 20 year athletic career upended and changed, Emily is hitting her prime, ready for the pressure of competition, and prepared to soar beyond the hardships she’s experienced.
It was right here on the same track in 2015 during World Cup competition that Emily and her teammates, Erin Hamlin and Summer Britcher, stood together on the podium, having for the first time in luge history, swept the field in a triumph over the routinely dominant German team. “I get goosebumps thinking about that day,” says Emily, who took silver in that event.
Six years earlier she made her first climb onto a World Cup podium, taking bronze at the 2009 Junior World Cup luge event in Winterberg, Germany. That same year, she rose to champion, winning gold at Park City, Utah.
Her development as an athlete takes on a linear aspect when you consider another six years before those first wins, she was a child just getting her start in the sport. “I got involved in luge when I was 10, and by the time I was 14, I was here in Lake Placid more than anywhere else.”
The Moment Everything Changed
Indeed, Emily seemed destined for glory. Until, however, she suffered a horrifically game-changing moment at the biggest event of her career – the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Racing down the track at more than 60 miles an hour, her sled caught air going through one of the giant banked turns. It twisted out of control, turning her perpendicular to the track and sending Emily’s body slamming hard into the icy side walls. Still conscious after the crash, Emily remarkably sat up, got up, and walked away toward medical help, not yet aware she had broken both her back and neck.
Everything she had worked so long and so hard for evaporated in seconds.
With her body and spirit broken, she was unable to train for months. “This was a turning point and a big part of my life, even outside of luge” she recognizes. “Everything hurt. Everything was thrown in a different direction all at once. I don’t like the term comeback because everything is different now.”
In a sport in which wins and losses are measured in the thousandths of a second, even a little fear can sink an athlete’s chances. “I had never been afraid of luge before,” she says. When luge athletes like Emily begin so young, they build their way up in increments. But after such a severe crash she says, “I suddenly had fear to overcome, and I was completely new at that so far into my career.”
Returning to Luge and Life
Since the crash, along with the things that have changed her world, Emily has found ways to change her perspectives, too, and today, she’s a new kind of champion. One who demonstrates that life’s challenges don’t have to be disadvantages. Though facing such debilitating injuries took everything she had, Emily has persevered, learning all over again how to push her body while also respecting it. In focusing on regaining her strength, both mental and physical, she’s now back on track (literally) and performing once again at world class levels.
“I’m always very intentional,” says Emily. “At this point in my career, the most important thing is making sure my body is healthy. I have a really good feel on the sled, and I’m intentional about how I want to be better. That’s what has allowed me to still be in the sport.”
With extraordinary willpower, determination, and strength, she overcame the monumental barriers she faced, and in 2019, just nine months after that gruesome crash, she claimed the bronze medal at an FIL World Cup race in Whistler, British Columbia. Then, the following month, she rose again to among the best in the world in winning bronze in women’s singles competition at the FIL World Cup Luge Championships in Winterberg, Germany.
In 2022 she made the Olympic Team once again, and though she placed 26th, Emily racked up a host of medals and strong finishes that year at World Cup races around the globe. They included silver medals at Innsbruck, Austria, at Park City, Utah, and at St. Moritz, Switzerland as well as bronze medals at Sigulda, Latvia and Winterberg, Germany.
Re-Imagining the Future. Dreaming New Dreams.
For Emily, achieving such strong results among the best luge athletes in the world now requires a calmness and centeredness she didn’t previously pursue. It was something that required great fortitude to develop, given her anxiety and fear following the crash.
“How I handle the pressure of competition has changed,” she says. “I used to get nervous. It’s strange now not having those feelings to push against. I breathe deep and clear my mind at the start before I go and just pull from there.”
Today, Emily is making the most of her career in the present and training hard to prepare for the upcoming season while keeping one eye on a last opportunity for an Olympic medal in 2026. That’s a road that begins right here in Lake Placid as the 2023-24 FIL World Cup Luge season kicks off on her home track at Mt Van Hoevenberg.
This competition is one that’s special for Emily. Though born in Maine and having lived in various places as a child, her father is originally from Saranac Lake. “That town’s been a part of my life forever,” she says.
Also practically growing up in Lake Placid and training extensively at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Training Center and at Mt Van Hoevenberg, two important facilities for her just a few miles apart, Lake Placid became a special place for Emily, too. “It’s been a big part of my life, and now Lake Placid feels like home. It’s become my true version of home for me. It’s a great community.”
Asked about the upcoming season opening World Cup, Emily’s face lights up. “I’m so excited. It’s great to have family here, to be back in Lake Placid, and for this to be the first race of 2023.”