| USA TODAY Sports
PYEONCHANG, South Korea – As lugers from Germany and Canada celebrated their medals in the luge women’s singles competition, the USA’s Emily Sweeney slowly inched her way through the mixed zone, stopping for reporters just long enough to squeeze out, “I’m OK.”
Roughly an hour earlier, Sweeney had been tossed and slammed to the ice while navigating through the track’s ninth curve, a precarious weave for lugers angling for the podium that swiftly turned into something far more serious.
“At that point, sports and racing doesn’t matter. It’s someone’s health,” said her teammate, Erin Hamlin, who finished sixth after capturing the bronze four years ago in Sochi. “It was definitely not something you want to see.”
Eight years after the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who suffered a fatal crash on the day of the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games, the sport was briefly and frighteningly reminded of its inherent risk.
“It is dangerous,” said American Summer Britcher, who finished 19th. “We’re going 80 miles per hour with a helmet on down an ice track.”
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Lugers strap on their gear, lie prone on their backside and traverse curve after curve at insane speeds, and can find themselves pinballing from one side of the track to the next with just one errant move – as did Sweeney, who put her feet to the ice in an attempt to steady her progress but then toppled off her sled, drawing a team of medical personnel to the ice and leading to a 10-minute delay in competition.
Athletes racing after Sweeney stood atop the track and waited, unable to completely refocus until they saw two USA Luge members share a smile.
She was OK: Sweeney was “banged up,” the event doctor said, and suffered no broken bones. In the end, after minutes of angst, worry and concern, it was the best the situation could’ve offered.
But lugers accept the bumps and bruises, and the scares, as part of the sport. Signing up for the sliding sports demand that you “switch off” the part of your brain that worries about the risk, said Austria’s Madeleine Egle, and focus instead on the final result.
“It is luge. It happens,” said Latvia’s Ulla Zirne, who came in 12th. “So I know it happens. I’ve been there myself. I know what it means. So I wasn’t scared or anything.”
It also means accepting, if begrudgingly, that accidents can and will happen. At home, viewers may watch the events for the thrills and the spills – the satirical web site The Onion even published a story on Monday headlined “Nation Praying For Super Nasty Luge Accident,” which despite the parody seemed scarily prescient.
It nearly came one day later. Three factors contributed to Sweeney’s spill: the curve, which jostled even the great Felix Loch of Germany in the men’s singles competition; the track, a brand-new spot for many in the field; and the ice, colder even than usual due to the frigid temperatures at the Alpensia Sliding Centre.
“Everyone competing at this level is extremely talented, but accidents do happen,” said Britcher. “It’s the nature of the sport, of any sport at a high level.”
It’s just that luge – along with the other sliding sports, and several Winter Games events altogether – entails a degree of danger not found in the Summer Games, for example, and a level of peril that often whitewashed over by a heavy focus on the medal podium. Competing for a medal means embracing that risk.
“You have to give everything,” Egle said. “Sometimes you crash.”