U.S. luge racer Emily Sweeney's return to the OIympics is a story of survival
BEIJING — Four years ago at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Emily Sweeney was rocketing down the track feet first, banking through sharp turns at more than sixty miles an hour when her luge sled bucked and twisted out of control.
"I've never seen an accident...that bad," said her dad Larry Sweeney who was there that day in South Korea. "We took off running."
Sweeney's body slammed side to side against ice hard and unforgiving as concrete. Her mom Sue Sweeney was also there. She says the only reason her daughter is alive today is her skill as an athlete.
"[Without] the training that they received all these years, she wouldn't be here today - or wouldn't be herself today if it hadn't been for that."
But Emily Sweeney still left the sled track that day with devastating injuries, the kind that often end careers for top-tier athletes.
"I broke my neck and my back," she said, speaking to reporters after arriving in Beijing. "I came back and I'm here."
Sweeney now faces two days of luge races that get underway Monday. For her, she said, getting to these Olympics isn't so much about winning medals as it is about survival.
"I think the more important part of my story for myself at least is that I'm still here," she said. "I made it back, I made it through all of those things. It was incredibly challenging."
There are a couple reasons why this accomplishment is amazing.
Sweeney, who is 28 years old, had to qualify for her second Olympic Games as a completely different athlete. Her body just works differently after the crash.
"She doesn't have the range of movement that she used to have," said her sister Megan Sweeney Schafer, who was also a top U.S. luge racer, competing at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010.
"You know you're on the sled and you're pulling five Gs. There's not a lot of flex that she has."
Sweeney Schafer says her sister had to find a way to race more creatively, not physically loose but mentally loose. "That has really helped her clear her mind before going down the track and I think that's the biggest difference that I see," she said.
In Beijing Sweeney will have to enter that Zen-like state of mind — relaxed and fearless — doing something that wrecked her body. Luge is a sport where winning and losing is measured in tiny fractions of a second.
"I've shown this year that I have a lot of speed with me, within myself," she said during a press conference this week. "But in order to get that speed I have to be going for it, I can't play it safe."
While Sweeney races, friends and family will be watching back home.
Her parents live in Saranac Lake, a village in New York's Adirondack Mountains but they'll gather in the nearby Olympic community of Lake Placid where Sweeney got her start as a sled racer.
A few days ago her parents Sue and Larry were decorating, getting ready to gather around the television. Because of the pandemic they couldn't travel to Beijing.
"It's really hard not to be there," said Sue Sweeney. Their daughter may be fearless but for the family these next two days will be scary. "We've seen what can happen. It does weigh on your mind a bit."
Larry Sweeney said they have a family tradition for dealing with the pressure and nerves on race day. "We call it luge hooch, it's Jameson and Bailey's," he laughed.
"A little whiskey goes a long way," said Sue Sweeney. "That and deep breathing."
Emily Sweeney says she's grateful her family backed her through the long recovery and supported her decision to return to the Olympics.
"They've gone through it. They've had all the joyous parts and deal with me going through terrible parts," Sweeney said, adding, "Thanks Mom and Dad."
Sweeney faces one last mental test. She'll race on a winding sled track that's brand new, built for these Winter Games. Which means athletes haven't had time to learn its twists and turns.
In her first Olympic runs since the crash in Pyeongchang, Sweeney will have to go all-out, risking everything on an icy course that's unfamiliar.
North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell contributed reporting.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.