Luge athletes Summer Britcher and Emily Sweeney know exactly what it’s like to be teammates, having overlapped on Team USA since the 2013-14 season and as members of two U.S. Olympic teams. What’s more, they look to each other as their best source for motivation and competition as they pursue their careers as singles competitors.
So when the International Olympic Committee announced in June that it would officially accept women’s doubles as a Winter Olympics event for the 2026 Games, it seemed only natural that the two might team up for the challenge. But a partnership wasn’t nearly so obvious for Britcher or Sweeney.
“We are both very much like single mindset, very competitive, good teammates to each other, but trying to win, obviously, all the time, and that seemed like such a drawback,” explained the 28-year-old Britcher, who hails from Glen Rock, Pa., and has five World Cup wins — more than any U.S. women’s luge athlete ever.
“I just spent however many years learning this and getting through the growing pains of learning a sport. Why would I want to start from square one again? Like, I’m kind of okay now. Why would I want to do that?”
However, Britcher admits the prospect had her intrigued. She began throwing out the idea to Sweeney last season as a joke, but the idea took a serious turn after they got back from a European vacation with several teammates in June.
The day after arriving home, Sweeney shot off a text. “I said, ‘’F’ it, let do doubles,’” she remembers.
“She called my bluff,” says Britcher, who responded with a stunned selfie, mouth agape.
But the two quickly went all in on the partnership, committing to the effort completely while also acknowledging that at any time, either could back away.
“We both have the opportunity to step out and say, ‘Hey, no, I want to focus on singles,’ for instance,” says the 29-year-old Sweeney, who has one World Cup win and 12 podiums on her resume, most recently finishing second in the singles and sprint races at the World Cup season opener in Innsbruck, Austria. “We’re not holding each other to anything, but we’re giving it 100 percent while we’re doing it. We’re relying on each other, but we’re also understanding that we have another discipline, something else that we’re focusing on.”
Neither has medaled yet at an Olympics. Britcher is a three-time Olympian, with her best finish being a fourth place as part of the U.S. mixed team relay in 2018. She finished 23rd in Beijing in February and said she strongly considering retirement afterward.
Sweeney, meanwhile, is a veteran of the last two Games, finishing 26th in Beijing and posting a DNF in 2018 after a horrific crash on the PyeongChang track left her with a broken back, neck and pinkie. But although Sweeney knew she would continue to compete this season, she did make a monumental shift mentally, declaring the 2022-23 season the “year of fun” after finally feeling healthy again and finishing a 10-year stint with the U.S. Army in June, after spending six years as part of the National Guard and four years in active duty.
“It can be difficult to find happiness when you’re in a lot of physical pain constantly,” says Sweeney, who describes the first two years following her 2018 crash as “overwhelming.” It’s only been recently, she says, that she hasn’t had to do daily mobility exercises.
“It’s exciting because it feels like this is the first time that I’m choosing my challenge,” she adds. “Before this year, my challenge was my body — and then came the pandemic. But [doubles] has been exciting to me — to feel like I’m pursuing something and not just dealing with something.”
“I think we were both just separately miserable in our own ways,” offers Britcher, who found her way out of two years of disappointment following a frustrating 19th-place singles performance at the 2018 Olympics only to get knocked down again during the pandemic. A broken finger three weeks prior to the Beijing Games felt a little like adding insult to injury.
“I didn’t have a great time. It wasn’t great,” Britcher continues. “It just seemed like it was at a point where it wasn’t worth it for what I was getting out of it, as far as fulfillment and everything.”
Both women say they have found new purpose – and a surprising amount of fun – in their venture into doubles competition, where they hope to affect more change for women in luge. As an athlete representative to the Luge Federation (FIL) the last four years, Britcher has been an outspoken advocate for equity in the sport, which still has different, lower start houses for the women’s races. And while the women’s doubles races start from the same point as the men, and the event’s addition to the Olympic program makes the medal count more equitable in luge, there currently are no plans to expand the number of Olympic quota spots for female luge athletes. That means, while the men can specialize in either singles or doubles, women luge athletes would be expected to compete in both.
While they may not agree with it, Britcher and Sweeney have accepted the challenge, which has come with an approximately $15,000 price tag. The pair went about securing and paying for their own equipment, with Sweeney personally picking up their doubles sled from Austria, getting it fitted in Germany and transporting it back to the U.S., where she and her father drove cross country to deliver the sleds to Utah.
“For me, I started out as just seeing it as an opportunity,” says Sweeney. “But since we’ve started and now that we’re in it, I do feel a bit of responsibility. Because I mean, we had our first real crash last week in Whistler. We both looked at each other and took a minute. We left it open, asking ourselves, ‘Do we want to continue the next day? Do we want to push through for this week?’ And both of us had a similar feeling of like, ‘I don’t want to give them anything.’”
The “them” Sweeney refers to are the ready-to-pounce naysayers, whose stereotypical narratives are used to justify reasons why the women’s competitions should be different from the men’s.
“Any misstep that any woman takes in any field is immediately highlighted and replayed and held against us,” explains Britcher. “We saw it with the men in Whistler. They were having an extremely difficult time. There were multiple crashes, multiple very scary runs that we were seeing, and no one critiques them at all. Then you have a couple of women crash in a row, and they say this is just too hard for women. So, we’re up against those same prejudices and stereotypes that women face in every sport, where any misstep is under this magnifying glass, especially because it’s a new discipline.”
As for goals this season, neither are willing to get specific, but Sweeney did share her ultimate scenario: “The dream weekend would be we would both podium in singles and doubles. That would be so huge, I might just quit right then.”
The FIL World Cup in Park City kicks off Friday with women’s doubles, followed by women’s singles and sprint competitions on Saturday.
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