D'Arcy Maine, ESPN.com 2y

Olympics 2022: Emily Sweeney is back on luge track after broken neck derailed her dreams in 2018

Olympic Sports, Winter Olympics

EMILY SWEENEY NEVER felt comfortable wearing shirts featuring the Olympic rings.

She had been required to do so a handful of times for various obligations, but she never felt right about it and changed as soon as she could.

She had even covered the rings with a piece of tape on a commemorative license plate on the family car.

It's not that she didn't want to wear them. In fact, it was all she had ever wanted. But if she was going to display those rings, she wanted to earn it.

For years, Sweeney had come devastatingly close. She narrowly missed making the American luge team for the 2010 and 2014 Games. But finally in 2018, she achieved her lifelong dream -- and was determined to make every moment, and every piece of official Team USA gear, count.

On her first day in Pyeongchang, she went with friend and teammate Erin Hamlin to team processing, an event featuring kiosks of swag and official clothing. It was Hamlin's fourth Olympics, so she knew exactly what to expect and wanted to make sure the experience lived up to Sweeney's expectations.

"You go station to station and it's really easy to just be appreciative and like, 'Oh cool, thank you,' and not take the time to try everything on, but with Emily, I wanted her to make sure everything fit just right," Hamlin said. "I remember turning to her and saying, 'You waited a really long time for these clothes, so we're going to enjoy this. You deserve it.'"

Sweeney and Hamlin spent several hours trying on clothes and savoring every second. When Sweeney left the facility, she had two suitcases full of perfectly fitting gear showcasing the hard-fought Olympic rings. It remains Sweeney's favorite memory from the Olympics.

Days later, she crashed during her final slide of competition and suffered a debilitating spinal injury that left her bed-ridden and unable to train for months.

Everything she had ever wanted ended in a second, and the mental recovery was as challenging as the physical. It wasn't how she envisioned her Olympic experience. Nor had she predicted all of the other challenges that would come her way over the next four years. But through it all, the 28-year-old remained focused on returning to the Olympic stage one more time.

On Monday in Beijing, she did just that. After her first run, she was 10th with a time of 58.971. She wrecked in the second run, but finished. She'll head into Tuesday's third run at 28th place. 

"After failing as much as I've failed, and having been broken down to such a low, I know who I am without luge," Sweeney said. "It's not my 100% everything anymore. It's what I've chosen to do right now, what I've chosen to 100% commit to and make my No. 1 during this stretch. I still love it and feel lucky to have it, but luge is what I do, it's not my identity. Now I know I'm so much more."

SWEENEY HAD HER heart set on making the Olympic luge team before she had ever even tried the sport. As a kid, she would spend time with her extended family in the Lake Placid area and hear story after story about the 1980 Games held in the upstate New York town. She watched her older sister Megan start in the sport after her aunt noticed an ad in the local newspaper for a slider search (a program for recruiting youth lugers), and Emily just knew it was for her.

For four years, she enviously watched Megan and couldn't wait until she could be out there, too.

When she turned 10, she was finally allowed to try for herself and she made her way to an open slider search, just as Megan had done years earlier. Sweeney remembers the day vividly 18 years later. A local radio reporter was waiting at the bottom to ask kids what their first slide was like.

"Was it everything you thought it would be?"

"No, it's more," she gushed in response.

Sweeney admitted she was a "really cheesy kid," but her earnestness was real. Her passion for the sport was born that day, and has guided almost every decision she has made since.

By 14, she was traveling internationally as part of the youth World Cup circuit. Still, she tried to have as much of a normal life as she could, attending her public high school in her hometown of Suffield, Connecticut, in the luge offseason and even playing on the lacrosse team. She attended an online school in the winter to accommodate her travel schedule.

Sweeney never thought she had a chance to make the 2010 Olympics. She was just 16, and even as she accumulated significant qualifying points throughout the season, she never let herself seriously entertain the possibility. Until, that is, there was one week left to make the team and she and Megan were both in contention. The idea of making their Olympic dream come true together was just too exhilarating not to think about.

But the excitement was short-lived. In the end, Sweeney and Megan would be competing for the team's final spot -- and were forced into a race-off. Megan won, and Sweeney was named the alternate. Sweeney watched her older sister and the other American competitors from the sidelines.

"It was weird watching my dream play out from the wrong side of the track," Sweeney said. "I was sitting on the fan side, seeing what I so badly wanted to be a part of right in front of me, so that was complicated, but [looking back now] I wouldn't have changed anything. I would go again in an instant and be there for Megan and to cheer her on."

The disappointment only motivated Sweeney even more for 2014.

She won the junior world championship in 2013 and seemed to be a front-runner to make the Sochi-bound squad the following year. But things didn't go as expected. There were a slew of minor injuries and complications with her sled. She knew well before the qualifying deadline she wasn't going to make the team. Sweeney was named a (non-traveling) alternate again.

"If making the Olympics is your passion, pursuit and your job, and then you don't make it, everything just stops," Sweeney said. "At least it did for me. I didn't have a Plan B. I went back to Lake Placid to train as an alternate, but I was absolutely crushed.

"In this country, you hear about luge every four years and that's it. When someone asks me what I do, and when I tell them I'm on the luge team, the next question is always, 'Are you an Olympian?' That's the only thing people have to associate it with, and when you haven't done that, every single time you have to say no, especially when you've been so close as an alternate, it's the worst thing."

For the first time in her life, Sweeney was uncertain about her future with the sport.

She took some time off but ultimately couldn't stay away for long. A member of the U.S. Army and its World Class Athlete Program, Sweeney credits a military training course for getting her "butt back in gear." She resumed luge training once she got back, and put everything she had into making the 2018 Games.

This time she left nothing to chance. Sweeney collected multiple medals during the 2015 and 2016 World Cup seasons, and took home her first gold in November 2017 in the sprint race at the World Cup event in Winterberg, Germany.

Weeks later, Sweeney discovered she had qualified for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team while folding laundry alone at her home in New York.

"My mom texted me, 'See you in Pyeongchang,'" Sweeney said. "I checked the results for [a race a teammate was participating in] and saw that there was no chance someone else could beat my [score], so that's how I found out my Olympic dream was coming true. I remember thinking, 'Of course this is how it would happen.'"

Hamlin, who was returning for her final Olympic Games, had won the country's first ever luge singles medal in 2014, and was the first American woman to win a luge medal of any kind. Sweeney hoped she could follow suit.

In 14th place entering her fourth and last run, Sweeney was determined to give it everything she had. She was on pace for her best race of the competition. But she lost control nearing Curve 9, a part of the course that had gained a reputation for being difficult. She bounced up against the wall, and then back-and-forth with the other wall before eventually being flung from her sled in a horrific crash in front of teammates and family members. She somehow managed to walk off the track on her own.

Once she regained her breath, the discomfort was immediate, but she didn't realize just how serious her injuries were. Sweeney was immediately brought in for a number of scans at the on-site medical facility, but due to the language barrier, she still didn't understand the severity of her injuries until a few days later.

"At first we thought [all the scans] had been clean, but then my doctor looked at it and said, 'No, you broke your neck and your back," Sweeney said. "So then I flew home early with a broken vertebrae and another one that was fractured."

For the next two months Sweeney could barely move. No matter how she positioned herself -- seated or lying down -- she would quickly be overcome with pain and her neck would spasm. She and her father watched the rest of the Olympics, and then what felt like a never-ending loop of Hallmark movies.

By April 2018 she was able to start walking -- slowly -- on a treadmill. Her first attempt lasted all of six minutes, but she steadily progressed. Six months after the accident, she was cleared by her medical team to resume training.

But it wasn't that simple.

"They said that to me, and you think that that's going to be this switch, right? That you're going to say, 'OK, I can start moving again,' but I just had nothing," Sweeney said. "I had no motivation. I didn't really believe what I could do. I didn't know. It still hurt a lot. At that point they said everything was healed enough that I wasn't going to rebreak things, but my body still looked and felt so different."

Sweeney knew if she wanted to keep her spot on the national team, she would have to make a podium before the end of the season. It was a daunting prospect. She had lost 20 pounds since the crash and still felt like a stranger in her body. During a walk with her coach about a month after being cleared, she asked if he thought she had any chance.

"He thought about it, and he looked at me and said, 'Yes, I do,'" said Sweeney. "I could see on his face that he actually believed it, and I said, 'OK.' Then things changed a little bit from there, and I started just trying to do like one thing a day to get better. That was the turning point."

The self-belief and the fire had returned, but Sweeney found herself in a position she had never been in before. She was afraid. People had always asked her whether luge was scary, but she had always just laughed. She had never been scared, not even on her very first slide as a 10-year-old. But now, as she prepared for her first run during her return, she experienced a staggering fear. She knew what could go wrong and it was hard to put aside in her mind.

Her body was no longer accustomed to the near-90-mile-an-hour speed down an icy track, either. She threw up at the end of almost every run the rest of the season.

But despite her anxiety and the sudden unfamiliarity, Sweeney returned to the circuit nine months after her Olympic nightmare. In her first competition back, she claimed the bronze medal at a World Cup race in Whistler, British Columbia.

She cried when her final run was over, overwhelmed with emotion, and later did media interviews over the phone while lying on the floor in her hotel room, unable to move due to the pain. Still, she said, she couldn't stop smiling.

The following month, in January 2019, Sweeney earned the bronze at the world championships in Winterburg, Germany. It was the biggest milestone of her career, made even sweeter after everything she had been through to get there. She added three more World Cup medals to her growing collection during the 2019-20 season.

If Sweeney's story were a fictional movie, this would be the part where a montage of intense training and podium appearances would follow before the 2022 Olympics got underway. But as everyone around the globe understands all too well by now, life doesn't always work that way.

When the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down, Sweeney was confined to her Lake Placid dorm room, where she lived by herself. She wasn't able to see her longtime boyfriend, Italian luger Dominik Fischnaller, for 11 months. She did her best to stay motivated and continue training, but with so much uncertainty about the status of the 2020-21 season and, well, everything, some days were harder than others.

When racing finally returned, Sweeney was unable to compete initially due to her role with the Army. She had to petition for clearance, a process that took several weeks, but was eventually granted permission in January 2021. During one of her first trips, her sled -- checked-in as luggage on her flight -- got lost.

There have been restrictions this season, too. In addition to all of the various virus protocols, which change depending on the country, Sweeney was barred from competing in Russia, again due to her military service. She was unable to gain valuable qualifying points from two World Cup races as a result. But after spending several weeks alone, yet again, in Germany while the rest of her team was in Sochi, Sweeney made her presence known with a fifth-place finish in Altenberg and a sixth-place result the following week in Innsbruck, Austria. Both were the best results among the American competitors.

In the final World Cup race before the Olympic team was announced, Sweeney again recorded the top finish (11th) among the American women in Sigulda, Latvia.

On Jan. 10, Sweeney was officially named to her second Olympic luge team as one of three American women. What seemed unlikely -- improbable even -- four years ago is now a reality. Those who know her best are amazed by her, but not surprised.

"She's been knocked down so many times and it takes so much strength and perseverance to say, 'I'm still going to do this,'" said Hamlin. "And not just do it, but have the confidence you can do it. She's had these moments of such devastation, and every single time she's come back, she's been stronger than before and had more success than she has before. It's so impressive. She thrives on adversity."

Sweeney doesn't know if this will be her last Olympic Games or when her competitive career may end, but she wants to enjoy every moment of her experience this time around.

She doesn't know what she'll do once her career is over, but that no longer scares her like it once did. She's looking forward to what's next and discovering other passions. She started doing Pilates while recovering from the 2018 crash, and has loved it so much, she's considering getting certified in it.

"This is what I'm doing right now and I want to make the most out of that," Sweeney said. "But I'm also excited to see what I'm going to do after this. I used to feel so much pressure about what's next, and I don't know what that's going to be, or if this is my last year competing, but I honestly can't wait to see what else is out there and what my next dream will be."

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