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U.S. Olympic luger Emily Sweeney looks forward from depression bout

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Luge’s World Cup campaign ends this weekend in Germany, where most of the best 100 sliders in the sport will be looking to close their international seasons on a high note.

Emily Sweeney won’t be among them.

Her season ended a couple weeks ago, on her terms.

The U.S. veteran is officially two years into her recovery from a crash at the PyeongChang Olympics that she walked away from — even with a broken neck and broken back — and two years away, she hopes, from being a medal contender at the Beijing Games.

She decided to listen to her body and step away from the frantic end of the season, heading home instead to meet her sister’s new baby and formulate a plan for her offseason.

Here’s what she has learned: Fractures heal, but everything else takes time. So while her body still betrays her from time to time on the track, an additional focus on the mental game is what Sweeney hopes will get her to the medal podium in Beijing in 2022.

“I am very comfortable about thinking about my weaknesses because I failed so much early on,” Sweeney said. “I didn’t make two Olympic teams right in a row. I constantly had to look at myself and say ‘What’s wrong? What am I not like?’ I had to be creative with my training and with the whole process. And so, I think I’m pretty comfortable with challenges.”

That’s why, this season, when she felt like her body couldn’t do it anymore she simply went home. The decision was not easy: Her team is still competing, she has plenty of friends on the circuit and her longtime boyfriend — Italian star Dominik Fischnaller — is a serious contender to win the men’s World Cup overall title.

But a setback right now could throw a serious wrench into her Olympic plans. The problem was pressure, not in the sense of what’s comes with the prospects of winning or losing in competition, but the massive gravitational force that sliders feel and fight through when they are on the ice at speeds often topping 80mph. It takes tremendous strength, and Sweeney’s neck still isn’t always up to the challenge. So, with wear and tear of the season taking a toll, she headed home.

“It’s not a question of if I’m good enough,” said Sweeney, who won a medal at last season’s world championships — cementing her status as one of the fastest women on ice. “I see it in my splits. I would have first-place splits, then get to the pressure and I ended up 15th. I just couldn’t keep going through this cycle of pushing it, pushing it, pushing it and then losing all my speed as soon as I can’t hold my head up anymore.”

So she’s working on her body and her mind.

Sweeney is one of the most-upbeat sliders on the luge circuit; always smiling, always happy, and most of the time her good mood is genuine. After the crash, however, the good mood wasn’t always there, and it took Sweeney some time to realize that there was more wrong than just the fractures in her neck and back.

“I went into a depression,” Sweeney said. “It’s weird saying that. But it feels foreign to me to say I broke my neck and my back two years ago. And it feels dramatic to say, which I guess I need to just get more comfortable with that. But I think that just the way I was raised was like, ‘All right, brush it off and move on.’ And that’s why I think I appear a lot of times like it’s just sunshine and rainbows, but this one forced me to stop. But you have to. And the alternative is to stay at that low and that just becomes miserable.”

From therapy came a plan: Do one thing a day to feel better toward the ultimate goal of medaling in 2022.

Most days, she succeeds. When Sweeney is right, especially in sprint events, few women in the world have a chance of catching her. Her sliding career is peaking. Her mental game, she thinks, is catching up.

And now she’s got two years to put the whole package together.

“Being an Olympian was my dream since I was 7 years old,” Sweeney said. “And then I became an Olympian, and I said, ‘Well, that’s not enough. I want a medal.’”

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MORE: Lugers boycott World Cup event

Olympic, world champion lugers pull out of World Cup event over safety

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U.S. Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer and other top lugers are skipping this weekend’s World Cup stop in Winterberg, Germany, citing unsafe track conditions and a growing frustration with the international federation over athlete concerns.

“This was brought to the attention of the FIL [International Luge Federation] and yet again we were told that everything is ok,” was posted on Mazdzer’s Instagram. “I realize that a boycott is a lose-lose situation and there are no winners. But I have no other option at this point. I feel personally that this track is not safe for doubles sleds or for athletes who do not have adequate numbers of runs.”

Mazdzer said by phone Friday that he noticed significant bumps on the track in his first training run earlier this week.

“I couldn’t drive because I’m being thrown everywhere,” he said. “When you’re going 130 kilometers an hour [80 miles per hour], you don’t really want the track to be bad.”

An FIL spokesperson said Friday that Mazdzer’s choice was “his individual decision” and declined further comment ahead of races scheduled Saturday and Sunday. Mazdzer said that he was told the race starts will be moved down.

USA Luge said in a Friday statement that it will not participate in the World Cup and would communicate its concern for athlete safety to the FIL.

Two-time U.S. Olympian Summer Britcher said she was boycotting via Instagram, calling it “a farce of a World Cup.” Top lugers said athletes suffered serious injuries in training runs.

“I love this sport, but after too many decisions too many times that disregard 1-the safety of the athletes, and 2- the integrity and fairness of our sport, I have grown a great disdain for the International Luge Federation, and those who make these decisions,” was posted on Britcher’s account. “I will not race this weekend. I do not believe the track is safe, I do not believe it has been prepared to a World Cup standard, and I do not believe that the International Federation and Winterberg World Cup organisers should get away from this with no consequences.”

Britcher’s post noted that her team notified coaches and the technical director that the track was unsafe after her first training run Wednesday.

“Our concerns, and the concerns of the rest of the athletes from other nations throughout the day were not taken seriously,” Britcher posted.

Britcher said that several coaches attempted to fix the track for several hours on Thursday after athletes refused to train.

Olympic champion David Gleirscher of Austria and World Cup standings leader Roman Repilov of Russia and the top doubles teams of Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken and Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt of Germany also posted on Instagram that they’re skipping the Winterberg World Cup, the penultimate stop of the season, for safety reasons.

Mazdzer estimated a 20 percent crash rate in training, but that the track condition has improved since Wednesday. He still plans to race next week at the last World Cup in Königssee.

“There’s a lot of problems with Winterberg,” he said after detailing the situation between athletes and the FIL, “and it’s not just the track.”

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Shaun White, Mikaela Shiffrin among dominant Winter Olympians of 2010s

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NBCSports.com looks back at the 2010s decade this week. Here are 10 Winter Olympic athletes who dominated the last 10 years …

Marit Bjørgen, Norway
Cross-Country Skiing
Eight Olympic gold medals in the 2010s
Broke career Winter Olympic medals record

A strong argument can be made that Bjørgen was the greatest Olympian of the 2010s — Summer or Winter. Her medal total for the decade — eight golds, 13 overall — would alone tie the record for most career Winter Olympic medals. She came back from childbirth to earn five medals, two golds, at the PyeongChang Olympics before retiring. That included winning the Games-closing 30km freestyle by a whopping 109 seconds, the greatest margin for any Olympic cross-country race since 1980.

Natalie Geisenberger, Germany
Luge
Six Olympic or world singles titles between 2013-19
Won the last seven World Cup season titles

Geisenberger, a skiing-to-sliding convert, won the Sochi Olympic title by 1.139 seconds, the largest margin in any Olympic luge event since 1964. In a stretch from 2012-15, she won 23 of her 29 Olympic, World Cup and world championships starts. Her PyeongChang defense was also impressive, winning by a margin greater than the one that separated second place from sixth.

Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan
Figure Skating
2014, 2018 Olympic champion
First skater to score 100 points in a short program, 200 in a free skate, 300 overall

Hanyu, then 14, was 12th at the 2009 World Junior Championships won by Adam Rippon. The next season, he was the world junior champion, setting the tone for a quadrennium in which he would rise to become the second teen to win the Olympic men’s singles title. From there, Hanyu combined jumping and artistry like no other skater, winning two world titles, another Olympic title and, the last five years, never finishing worse than second in a competition.

Marcel Hirscher, Austria
Alpine Skiing
Seven combined individual Olympic or world titles in the 2010s
Eight straight World Cup overall titles

The defining male skier of the decade. Hirscher may not have enjoyed Olympic success until PyeongChang (winning the super combined and giant slalom), but he captured an arguably more coveted crown every year from 2012 through 2019 — World Cup overall champion. Nobody else in history bagged more than six World Cup overalls. His 66 World Cup victories in the 2010s are a record for a single decade.

Sven Kramer, Netherlands
Speed Skating
Olympic 5000m champion in 2010, 2014, 2018
Six World Allround titles in the 2010s

You knew Kramer was something special at the start of the decade. At Vancouver 2010, Shani Davis, who preceded the Dutchman as the world’s best skater, called him “the Big Dog” before being paired together in what would be Kramer’s first Olympic gold-medal race. In addition to Olympic titles, he went undefeated at the historic world allround championships from 2007-17 and unbeaten at 5000m on the top international level for nearly six years from 2012-18.

Mikaela Shiffrin, United States
Alpine Skiing
Seven combined individual Olympic or world titles in the 2010s
Four straight World Cup overall titles

In slalom alone, Shiffrin won about 60 percent of her World Cup starts this decade. She became the youngest Olympic slalom gold medalist in Sochi (18 years old), then began branching out. By the end of last season, Shiffrin also earned Olympic or world titles in giant slalom and super-G, World Cup wins in every discipline and a single-season record 17 World Cup victories.

Tessa Virtue/Scott Moir, Canada
Figure Skating
2010, 2018 Olympic ice dance champions
Five Olympic medals a record for figure skaters

The only figure skaters to earn medals at every Olympics this decade. Virtue and Moir delivered under home-ice pressure at Vancouver 2010. They were defeated by training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2014, then returned from a two-year break to shatter scoring records and earn two more gold medals in PyeongChang (dance and team). They finished first or second in all of their ice dance competitions in the decade.

Lindsey Vonn, United States
Alpine Skiing
2010 Olympic downhill champion
Overcame major crashes, surgeries to break female World Cup wins record

Beyond the medals and victories, Vonn was a symbol of determination in the 2010s. From the very start. She competed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics with a severely bruised shin that caused “excruciating” pain. Over the decade, she would amass so many injuries that an annually updated OlympicTalk post labeled a “brief synopsis” of them totaled more than 800 words. Vonn missed the Sochi Olympics after blowing out her right knee in a February 2013 World Championships crash, and re-injuring the knee that November and December in a rushed comeback. She returned from a broken ankle, fractured left knee, broken right arm and twisted back to reach the PyeongChang Olympics, where she earned a hard-fought downhill bronze. She retired last season, four wins shy of Ingemar Stenmark‘s World Cup record, after another crash and knee injury.

Shaun White, United States
Snowboarding
2010, 2018 Olympic halfpipe champion
Four X Games halfpipe titles in the 2010s

White was the sport’s dominant figure at the start of the decade. He then rallied from a mid-2010s drop-off (fourth at the Sochi Olympics) to return to the top of the podium in PyeongChang. He defeated riders nearly a decade younger while attempting (and landing) back-to-back double cork 1440s at a contest for the first time. White is now the youngest and oldest male Olympic halfpipe champion, doing so in his teens, 20s and 30s.

Ireen Wuest, Netherlands
Speed Skating
Individual Olympic titles in 2010, 2014 and 2018
Five-time World allround champion

Wuest earned Olympic titles in three different events this decade, and medals in five of the six Olympic speed skating disciplines. She also finished in the top three at every world allround championships from 2010-18. Wuest, already with 11 medals, has an outside chance of reaching Bjørgen’s career Winter Olympic medals record (15) at Beijing 2022.

Honorable Mention: Dario Cologna (Switzerland, Cross-Country Skiing), Kaillie Humphries (Canada, Bobsled), Martin Fourcade (France, Biathlon) and Mikaël Kingsbury (Canada, Freestyle Skiing).

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