After the crash, Emily Sweeney back on the Olympic luge stage

BEIJING – It has been discussed in conversations for four years. The crash. Emily Sweeney of American Luge has had hundreds of them in her gliding career, but there’s only one that people want to talk about.

That’s what happens after someone breaks their neck and back in the Olympics.

Now four years away from the shock of her life, Sweeney is back on the biggest stage of her sport. She is one of several legitimate medal contenders in the women’s luge event at the Beijing Olympics, which starts Monday with the first two of four runs at the Yanqing Sliding Center. There are times when she still struggles with what happened at the Pyeongchang Games, but over time it has also made her stronger in the sense that not only is she still sliding – but she’s even better now.

“It’s kind of a liberation for me, actually, feeling like the greatest thing I’ll be reminded of has already been done,” Sweeney said. “And I mean that positively. Yeah, it was dramatic and it was intense and all. But it was so challenging and the magnitude of that challenge, I don’t think I’ll have that in the sport again. ”

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And what that means is that the crash gave her perspective.

There has never been a women’s luge race in Olympic history with so many sliders with realistic chances of a medal as the race that starts Monday. There’s two-time Olympic women’s champion Natalie Geisenberger of Germany, who flew into training this week after wrestling both on and off the ice at the Yanqing track this fall. There is Madeleine Egle from Austria, the women’s singles world champion this season. World Cup champion Julia Taubitz and her German teammate Anna Berreiter are as good as anyone in the world. Summer Britcher of the United States has a stack of medals in her collection. Sweeney has previously medaled at the world championships.

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They all lost to each other, they all beat each other.

“I find it incredibly exciting, this race,” said Irish luger and first-time Olympian Elsa Desmond. “I can’t even remember an Olympics ever being so exciting from a women’s perspective. … I think it could be a very interesting race. What we saw here at the World Cup in November, the field was wide open because none of us have any experience here. No one knows this track or drilled it in the same way as the others.”

That simply means that everyone is on an equal footing on the Yanqing track.

If training times are any indicator, Sweeney has a good chance of being in the mix. Geisenberger is widely regarded as the greatest women’s luge ever – and set the fastest time in five of her six training sessions this week. However, Sweeney had starts nearly identical to the Olympic champion; Geisenberger’s average was 7,247 seconds, Sweeney’s was 7,257 seconds.

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In the weeks following South Korea’s broken back and neck, the idea that Sweeney might be in this place may have been far-fetched. Not anymore.

“I don’t even know if I’m past it,” Sweeney said. “There are still times when the what-ifs come to mind. But I’m not alone here. I am competitive. I am more competitive than ever. My starts are stronger than ever. So I didn’t just do it. I feel like I did a good job.”

There have been countless challenges along the way.

Go back to 2010, when she lost a spot on the Olympic team by losing a race-off to Megan Sweeney – her sister. Go back to 2014, when injuries prevented her from qualifying for the Sochi Games. The neck and back still hurt every now and then thanks to the 2018 crash.

There is much more. Sweeney’s longtime partner is Italian tobogganist Dominik Fischnaller; they couldn’t see each other for months after the pandemic hit due to international travel restrictions. Last season USA Luge missed half of the World Cup list due to travel problems; this season, Sweeney, a soldier in the US Army, had to miss two World Cups in Russia due to military restrictions on travel there. And if all that wasn’t enough, her sled was held up in China for weeks after training this fall due to customs issues.

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“There were a lot of times where I could have walked away, but I didn’t,” Sweeney said. “I chose to hold out. I’m just proud to be here and I’m proud of everything I’ve been through.”

As it turns out, the crash has shown her she can handle anything.

The crash at the 2018 Olympics left a stunned silence over the Alpensia Sliding Center. Sweeney wobbled off-line in the most treacherous spot on the track, unsuccessfully trying to slow down and regain control. She ran back and forth wildly, knowing there was going to be a collision. The first blow was with her feet first into the lip on top of the track, the second was when she bounced off the slope of the wall and slammed the base of her neck into more icy concrete. She was thrown from her sled at probably almost 120 km/h and her body slid across the ice to a stop.

“I’m fine,” she insisted that night.

She definitely wasn’t then. She is now.

The realization only dawned on her a few days ago. She has come back. She sat on a bus going to the top of the Yanqing runway, realizing that she could only see the Olympic rings in just about every direction.

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She is no longer broken.

“That’s when it dawned on me that I’m really proud of myself,” Sweeney said. “And I don’t think I feel that often. I’m lucky. I have many people who support me, and they tell me that they are very proud of me. But I always felt like it was for things you had to do, and you didn’t really deserve it. I felt that way. But this is the first thing I’ve done that I know I chose to do, over and over, when it was hard. And I’m really proud of myself.”

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