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What Still Motivates Veteran Luger Emily Sweeney?

by Peggy Shinn

Emily Sweeney reacts after crossing the finish line of the women's singles race during the FIL Luge World Cup on Dec. 03, 2022 in Innsbruck, Austria. (Photo by Getty Images)

Emily Sweeney is about to begin her fifteenth season in luge. Over that decade-and-a-half, the 30-year-old from Connecticut has accomplished just about everything in her sport. She’s won world cup and world championship medals, competed in two Olympic Games, and made a debut in doubles (new on the FIL World Cup tour last year for women).

It hasn’t been easy. Her body feels the wear-and-tear of a sport that has her speeding down an icy track faster than the speed limit on most U.S. freeways. She fractured her neck and back in a frightening crash at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, and her neck still bothers her, especially on rough tracks or when the G forces are high.

She also recently had shoulder surgery to repair a labral tear.

As she thinks back over her career, Sweeney appreciates the recent emphasis on mental health that’s allowed athletes to “talk about what your why is, knowing your why, understanding why you’re doing all this,” she said from Lake Placid, where she was training this fall.

“For me, my why has changed a lot throughout my career,” she added. “Allowing myself not to be stuck to the same thing has allowed me to continue.”

Sweeney first tried luge at age 10 and competed in her first FIL World Cup in women’s singles in 2009. She was just 16 years old and a few months later, made headlines after losing the final 2010 U.S. Olympic Team berth in luge to sister Megan in a special race-off.

That near miss helped fuel Sweeney’s drive to improve, and by 2013, she was the junior world champion in women’s singles.

In 2014, Sweeney again missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team despite a couple of almost-podium finishes in senior world cup races and a silver medal in a team relay on her resume.

Back then, she wanted to get better and “prove that I was good enough,” she said.

Sweeney finally earned her first world cup medal at the senior level on her home track (Lake Placid) in December 2015 — in a historic U.S. sweep of the podium, with Sweeney in second place behind Erin Hamlin and ahead of Summer Britcher.

Emily Sweeney slides in the women's singles luge run 3 during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 08, 2022 in Yanqing, China. (Photo by Getty Images)

From then on, Sweeney was almost always a threat to win a medal. She made her Olympic debut at the 2018 Winter Games. But on her fourth and final run on the PyeongChang track, she lost control around curve 9 and slid sideways, her spine cracking as she hit the track wall.

Returning to luge from that injury became Sweeney’s next motivator.

“I wanted to come back from that, and I didn’t want to be afraid of anything,” she said.

Sweeney has done some of her best sliding since her return from that injury, earning a bronze medal in women’s singles at the 2019 world championships, collecting more world cup hardware, and making her second U.S. Olympic Team in 2022.

Last season, Sweeney slid with consistency, finishing fifth overall in world cup rankings. It was, she said, “my year of fun.” Between her injury in 2018, the Covid-19 pandemic and all the pandemic restrictions, “the hits kept coming,” she said. She needed to let go.

“This is going to sound bad, but I wasn’t working that hard,” she admitted. “I wasn’t in the sled room, I wasn’t doing all the things that you have to do to be successful, and I just leaned into the enjoyment of the sport, and it paid off.”

But, she acknowledged, the only reason she could set her career on auto-pilot and be successful was because of the years of work she had already put into the sport.

“It’s a fine line because you have to maintain [the work] to get better,” she said. “You have to put focus and attention into it, and you also have to let go. So I’m learning to do that now.”

For the 2023/2024 season, Sweeney is excited to see how she performs under the tutelage of a new national team coach, German legend Toni Eggert. Part of the doubles team dubbed “Eggs Benedict,” Eggert won bronze at the 2018 and silver at the 2022 Olympics, respectively, as well as five consecutive world championship titles and a record 54 world cup races, all with doubles partner Sascha Benecken. Eggert joined USA Luge as a national team coach in August 2023.

Eggert is bringing new ideas to the team, though Sweeney is not at liberty to elaborate.

“We’re in an exciting time,” is all she would say. “We’re trying to push technology again, so I want to see what’s possible.”

“Before, my motivation was the outcome,” she added. “Now the process is my motivation.”

(l-r) Summer Britcher and Emily Sweeney compete in run 1 of the women's doubles race during the FIL Luge World Cup on Dec. 03, 2022 in Innsbruck, Austria. (Photo by Getty Images)

Last season, women’s doubles debuted on the world cup tour, and Sweeney paired with Britcher, a three-time Olympian. Although Sweeney had not thought much about gender equality in luge — because U.S. lugers have parity in pay — she enjoyed experiencing this new women’s discipline and through it, became more aware of the disparity in her sport.

She was also excited to “have a breath of fresh air and learn something completely new.”

Through doubles, she began to enjoy the process of luge. She did not expect to get on the podium in doubles and was “willing to fail.”

“It’s humbling for sure, but in a fun way,” she said. “I enjoyed not getting down on myself for the mistakes and just learned what I could from them.”

Sweeney and Britcher also learned from each other — how each one slides a track differently. And with the pressure to slide both singles and doubles on race weekends, Sweeney did not have time to slip into over-analysis mode.

This year, Sweeney will take what she learned in doubles and for now, focus on singles.

The 2023/2024 FIL World Cup tour opens in Lake Placid on December 8, with women’s singles on December 9. It’s the first time since 2019 — before the pandemic — that U.S. lugers will get to compete on their home track.

Sweeney has won three of her 15 world cup medals on the Lake Placid track.

After shoulder surgery in June, Sweeney is five months into a six month recovery but is optimistic for the season ahead. She also stated that she is committed to luge through the 2026 Olympic season.

“I’m looking to learn this year,” she said. “I know that sounds crazy because I’m so experienced. But I don’t ever want to put myself into that space because then you’re expected to know, and we’re all just learning as much as we can.”

“I have no idea what a number goal would be,” she continued. “I just want to try to continue the consistency that I had last season. So I want to be consistent and learn.”