Suffield’s Emily Sweeney Uses National Guard Experience To Help Propel Her To Olympics
This time nothing was going to keep Emily Sweeney from participating in the Olympics. Not her sister. Not even her own doubts.
Eight years after losing to her sister by two-tenths of a second to miss out on the 2010 Olympics and four years after failing again to secure a spot for the 2014 Olympics, the Suffield native finally made it to the 2018 Winter Games, and Sweeney stood in 15th place after her first two runs Monday in the luge singles competition. Her final two runs will come Tuesday.
Sweeney’s journey started early. She grew up watching her sister Megan slide at the junior levels, which motivated Emily to try luge as well.
Like her sister, Emily Sweeney competed at the junior levels. During the 2009 World Cup season, she claimed the Norton Junior World Championship while also earning bronze medals at the Junior World Cup in Germany.
Sweeney developed so fast as an athlete that she was in a position to compete against her sister for the final spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 2010 at 16 years old.
“We ended up telling both of them to do their best,” said Sue, their mother. “This is a race just like any other race, and you have to give your best. We told them they needed to race it out and they needed it to be OK with whatever happens. And we were confident that they were close enough as sisters that that would be OK, although it was very tough.”
Emily competed against her older sister for the final spot on the U.S. Olympic team in Lillehammer, Norway, only to miss out by two-tenths of a second.
“We let Emily know that we’re sorry,” Sue said. “We knew going into it that both of them were not going to make it. It was hard. Now we’re learning through much of Emily’s story that it was even harder for her than we realized.”
Though she had lost, she had earned the respect of her older sister.
“I was really nervous to show emotions, but Emily was the first one to smile as I got off the track,” Megan recalls. “She was extremely supportive. I think it was hard for her because she missed it and she’s a competitor. It was a long journey for her, and that was just the start of it.”
Emily traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to watch Megan perform. Though it was heartbreaking to know that she could have been participating in the Olympics, the sisters only cheered each other on.
“If I ever need anything, I’d go to her. That’s all you can ask for in a sister,” Emily said. “We are there for each other at any moment we’re in because usually we’re in very different time zones. She’s my best friend.”
“She’s taught me what unconditional love is,” Megan said. “She’s my baby sister, but she’s way more mature than I am.”
Four years later, Sweeney again missed out on a ticket to Sochi. She was more devastated than ever.
“She went to a pretty dark place for a while,” Sue said. “She checked out of luge and pretty much all of her athletic training.”
What got Sweeney out of the funk was the military. When Sweeney trained in Lake Placid, N.Y., she would often visit her grandfather Jack, who lived close to a military training facility. While Sweeney cooked dinner for him or they were sitting on the front porch, Jack would recount stories of his time in the Navy, inspiring her to join the National Guard in the summer of 2012.
“I think it was an indirect influence in that she admired his dedication to the United States,” Sue said. “She admired his loyalty to the country. She really embraced many stories that he told about his time in the service. She put two and two together and saw this both as a way to respect her grandfather and reflect her love for the country.”
After her failed attempt to go to Sochi, the National Guard ordered Sweeney to attend a leadership course that spring. The call was just what she needed.
“The military called me, and I had to go through a Warrior Leader Course, which is a three-week class in Fort Dix, N.J. I went down there, and changing my environment completely helped me,” she said. “Being an athlete and being a soldier, I’ve acquired skills in both of those worlds that benefit me and cross over.”
After recovering from her slump, Sweeney’s career has only been on the rise. She won her first gold medal last year in Germany at a World Cup sprint race. Before that, she won silver in 2016 Park City World Cup and in the 2015 Lake Placid World Cup.
As difficult as the journey was, what Sweeney went through finally paid off when she qualified for Pyeongchang. Her strong will to always strive for the best propelled her to the top, according to her family.
“She’s definitely a competitor at heart,” Megan said. “She doesn’t settle for mediocre.”
After Chris Mazdzer made history Sunday by seizing the United States’ first men’s luge singles medal, the women’s team looked to continue this good feeling Monday and Tuesday. For Sweeney’s family, what matters the most is for her is to capture and relish the moment.
“I just want her to have fun, and I want her to enjoy it,” Megan said. “I just want her to experience everything that the Olympics has to offer.”