Meet the Athletes: Emily Sweeney

Meet the Athletes: Emily Sweeney
Posted at 12:10 PM, Dec 08, 2021

American luger Emily Sweeney became the junior world luge champion in the 2009 World Cup season and won her first senior World Cup gold medal in the sprint race at Winterberg in 2017. Sweeney, the younger sister of Olympic luger Megan Sweeney, eventually made her own Olympic debut in 2018. But in her final run in PyeongChang, Sweeney had a frightening crash, learning later that she fractured her neck, back and pinky. 

She returned to racing nine months later, earning a bronze medal at the Whistler World Cup stop. 

As part of our preparation for the 2022 Winter Games, NBC Olympics sent questionnaires to multiple athletes to learn more about their lives both inside and outside of sports. Here’s what we found out about Sweeney:

Tell us about your family.

I'm extremely lucky when it comes to family. My parents, Sue and Larry, live in Saranac Lake, NY, with an incredible community. My older sister, Megan, who competed at Vancouver 2010, now works in NYC and has two kids with her husband. My brother, Bennett, lives in Texas. My boyfriend is Dominik Fischnaller who slides for and lives in Italy.

How influential were your parents in your athletic career?

When I think of my childhood, sports were such a big part of everything we did as a family. I had a stay-at-home dad, so we were involved in loads of sports growing up. Luge is not a backyard sport, so they were extremely supportive of getting me to Lake Placid and wherever the sport took me as I progressed.

Do you have a job outside of sports?

I am in the Army and part of the World Class Athletes Program (WCAP). After I graduated high school, I took one online college class and realized balancing school without a real goal of what I wanted to do after sport with training was not what I wanted at that time. I knew wanted to progress and prepare for something else in some way. My coach, Bill Tavares, was part of WCAP and after learning about the program I decided to join the National Guard. I was part of the National Guard for six years then transferred to Active Duty Army in 2018.

How has your hometown shaped who you are today?

I moved around a bit growing up. Each place really supported me beyond what I could have hoped for. Suffield, Connecticut, was also home for a bit and the school system was incredible in allowing me to learn remotely before that was a real thing. That allowed me to have more of a normal experience while I wasn't competing, and I am so grateful for that. I always get the feeling of returning home when I drive up the Northway to the Adirondacks. Lake Placid is really just a special place. It is oozing with Olympic spirit and I love it. I get chills every time I watch “Miracle on Ice” and I think about it every time I pass by the horseshow grounds where the Olympic Cauldron still sits. It's a place that celebrates winter and sport and it has encouraged me throughout my career.

Describe a typical training day.

I wake up between 6:30 and 7 a.m. I like slow mornings when I can have them. I have breakfast then start my warmup at 8:30. I do start training from 9:30-10:15 then head into the weight room. I usually get lunch right after training then find my way to sports medicine to do rehab exercises and get treatment. I usually finish around 3 p.m. and I am spent for the day.

What’s your favorite workout?

Pilates has become my favorite workout. I started it after I broke my back to gain mobility again and I love how challenging it is and how it makes my body feel.

What’s the most grueling workout you’ve ever done?

The most grueling workout I've ever done was running in the Army. I am not a natural runner and my training for luge is explosive training. Distance running was the most challenging thing for me because it is the opposite of what I train for with luge.

Anything surprising about training for the Olympics?

I think most people are surprised to learn that we train 11 months out of the year, every year. Most Americans only hear about luge once every four years, so they don't realize how committed we really need to be.

Anything out of the ordinary or experimental in your training?

After breaking my neck and back in 2018, I've had to adjust things a bit. Loading my spine is still not great for me so I have found more success when I do more functional-based training instead of Olympic lifting. I also use a HALO neck trainer to help gain strength back in my neck.

How did you prepare during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I was in Lake Placid, NY, during the original COVID-19 lockdown. It definitely affected my training. Getting access to gym equipment was challenging at first. I bought a doorway pull up bar that March as I saw work out equipment selling quickly. That along with bands and small weights was what I had to train with for the first few months. Then after that, the biggest change for me was that I was alone. We started gaining access to facilities, but we were split up into groups and I was alone for most of the off-season. I learned that I surprisingly kind of like it. I put my music on and sang throughout my workouts and had to push myself instead of relying on what others would think of my training. It was isolating and challenging in a lot of ways, but I also found a new strength in myself.

Have you ever been injured?

This is a loaded question for me. My biggest injuries happened in 2018 at the Olympics. I had what I like to call "the most spectacular crash" at the Olympics. I broke my neck, back and pinky. The whole experience is hard to put into words. It was by far the most challenging thing I have ever done, mentally and physically. At first, I couldn't sit up for more than 10 minutes without my neck and back going into a full-on spasm. Then I started walking on a treadmill where I walked 6 1/2 minutes at first. Figuring out how to push my body while also respecting it was tough. Then getting back on a sled that year was also just insanely challenging. Long story short, it took everything.

I earned a spot on the podium my first World Cup back and a bronze at World Championships 11 months after the crash, and three years later, I'm still shocked and honestly just really proud of myself.

What's your nutrition plan?

I love food. I am a foodie at heart. I also believe that nature does it best and we should try and supplement vitamins/minerals only after trying to eat them first. I start my day with 3 eggs with spinach and cheese and a piece of toast. Then for the rest of my snacks and meals I try to go with an 80/20 guideline. 80% should be healthy and intentional towards my performance and 20% can be just because it's what I want and it's good for my happiness.

I don't really restrict myself to the point where I feel like I need that one thing to indulge in, but my go to treat would be ice cream.

What’s your earliest memory of luge?

When I was 6, my sister tried luge for the first time. When I was 7, I decided I wanted to try it and go to the Olympics. Like most younger siblings, I looked up to my sister, and that was all it took for me to want it as well. I was 10 when I got to first try it on wheels. I remember being asked by a radio reporter "was it everything you expected it to be?" My cheesy but completely genuine response was, "No, it's more." I was hooked.

What would you change about your sport?

I'm jealous of summer sports that get to travel to beautiful beaches or places in the summertime. I wish luge wasn't so dependent on cold clear weather for great conditions.

What are your favorite hobbies?

I have a pontoon boat that I bought during the pandemic. It has been the best socially distant activity I've added to my life. I try to go out after training whenever it is nice out. Last year I was alone most of the time, but now with my family being vaccinated, I'm out with my family/friends. I also like to do house projects. My house is an oldie but a goodie so it requires so it requires some work, but I love making it feel little bit more like home. I also just love anything that has to do with food. I love learning new flavors when I'm traveling and figuring out how to make things myself with my family/friends.

Who’s your most interesting teammate?

Probably Chris Mazdzer because he enjoys being in the spotlight and pushing boundaries and always has something random going on.

What advice would you give a younger athlete?

I tell them that their biggest competitor will be themselves. Don't get caught up in looking at your teammate who you think is your competition, you just need to be the best you can be.