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Injury to Army Sgt. Emily Sweeney casts pall over US women's luge team

Army Sgt. Emily Sweeney waves as she walks from a crash on the luge track at Pyeongchang, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018.

MARCUS FICHTL/STARS AND STRIPES

By CHICO HARLAN | The Washington Post | Published: February 14, 2018

DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea They walked away from the luge track one after the next, the three leading women of American luge, each disappointed and shaken in her own way. The one who finished in 19th place said her performance was "incredibly devastating." The one who finished in sixth place, the last Olympic race of her career, said she just wanted to go to bed and sleep. The one who crashed, caromed, and didn't finish the race was the luger most upset of all, evaluated by doctors who detected neither head trauma nor broken bones, but crying nonetheless.

Army Sgt. Emily Sweeney's injury cast a pall over this race, a reminder of what can happen on an ice track when going 80 miles per hour downhill. Halfway through the course, near the ninth turn, she skidded and lost control. Her body ping-ponged through several more turns. She flew off her sled and fell backward. Officials rushed over with a stretcher. But Sweeney hobbled away on her own.

"I'm fine," she said 20 minutes later, wiping tears, telling the half-dozen people around her that she didn't want to go to the hospital. A USA Luge statement said she was taken to a clinic at the Olympic Village for evaluation. "It was a heavy crash and she was feeling sore," the statement said.

Americans are still only on the fringe of the women's luge world, where Germany again dominated Tuesday night, with Natalie Geisenberger defending her singles Olympic gold medal. But it is nights like these that U.S. lugers pinpoint as the best opportunity to grow the sport by winning medals, by grabbing the spotlight. Instead, the evening was by turns harrowing and somber no celebrations, only bruises. Erin Hamlin, the last US luger of the night, finished with her slowest of four runs down the track, coming .269 seconds shy of the podium.

"This is the end," Hamlin not long after. "I'm ready to sleep. I'm ready for pizza and a long time of sleep."

Germany's Geisenberger won gold in a fashion that shows why she is the unequalled star of the sport. The women's luge singles event is composed of four runs split over two days, results accumulating with each run, and Geisenberger was ahead of the next-best luger by .072 seconds after the first time down the track, .120 seconds after the second. That was Monday. By the end of Tuesday, after two more runs, she had more than tripled her lead. Germany's Dajana Eitberger grabbed the silver, and Canada's Alex Gough won bronze. Hamlin, the flag bearer in the opening ceremonies, was the highest U.S. finisher at sixth. Summer Britcher placed 19th.

"We'll be collectively a little upset after today," Britcher said.

Sweeney, 24, was in her first Olympics, having been on the cusp for years. In 2010, she lost a race-off for the final spot on the Olympic team to her sister. Then, injuries kept her from Sochi. Tuesday, she started with a middle-of-the-pack run no problems. But her next time on the track, she lost control in an area that has bedeviled lugers this week, right near the notorious ninth curve. Though that curve isn't such a sharp bend, its subtle angles can throw riders off balance.

"I was just hoping she's OK," Britcher said. "We're all a family."

"Emily and I are very close," Hamlin said. "At that point, sports and racing don't matter."

For nearly a decade, Hamlin has been U.S.'s top luger, becoming four years ago in Sochi the first American to win an Olympic medal. But several months ago, she decided on retirement, and her family members Tuesday said they were just as excited for everything that would come after luging: her wedding, some time to relax.

In the past six months, for the sake of luge, Hamlin had traveled to Norway, Germany, Latvia, Russia and South Korea. Her fiancé, Jon Hodge, is a teacher with an 8-to-4 job. They've been together for four years, having fallen for one another when Hodge had flown in for his cousin's high school graduation ceremony. Hamlin, fresh off the bronze medal in Russia, was the commencement speaker.

"Next thing you know I'm canceling my flight home," Hodge said. "And it's been long-distance ever since."

After finishing her final Olympic race, Hamlin said she was disappointed but still fulfilled. She'd anticipated that she might feel nostalgic or emotional this week. But she hadn't. It was probably a sign that retirement was the right move, she said. "I think I'm ready for it," she said.

As she walks away, she leaves the sport much as she found it: with Germans at the top. Of the past 30 Olympic medals given out to women's singles lugers, Germans have won 22. Austrians have won another five. Hamlin is one of just three lugers from beyond those two countries since 1984 to stand on an Olympic podium.

"If I knew what was making them super-fast, I'd be doing it do," Hamlin said of Germany. "They have more of a pipeline for athletes. Whereas [in the U.S.], we're just trying to convince kids to do it."

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