January 08, 2016

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) Emily Sweeney glided to a stop at the finish line on Mount Van Hoevenberg, looked up at her time, and beamed like never before.

Her first podium finish in World Cup luge women's singles competition - a silver in December on her home track outside Lake Placid - validated that her long journey was on the right track. Nearly 16 years after she caught her first real glimpse of the sport when older sister Megan began sliding for USA Luge, Emily is inching closer to finally fulfilling her Olympic dream.

''I'm confident, I'm comfortable. I'm in a good spot right now,'' the 22-year-old Sweeney said. ''I wanted to kind of follow in her (Megan's) footsteps and make some of my own. I was just hooked from the beginning.''

Emily, who was born in Portland, Maine, and lives in Suffield, Connecticut, was 7 years old when Megan began sliding for the U.S. in the fall of 2000. Four years later, she followed in her sister's footsteps, attending a slider search stop conducted by USA Luge in Providence, Rhode Island, and doing very well.

When she kept receiving callbacks from the team, Emily decided to move to Lake Placid to join her sister and pursue the sport in earnest, forgoing a chance to play college lacrosse.

By 2008, Emily was the U.S. Youth A national champion and the next year, was promoted to the team's World Cup roster, giving the 16-year-old a real chance at making the Vancouver Olympics.

Her journey then became a real ordeal at selection time. The third and final spot among the U.S. women was determined in a race-off at Lillehammer, Norway, in December 2009 between Megan, Emily, and Kate Hansen, whom Emily had beaten for the gold at junior national championships nine months earlier.

Megan won.

''I had just started to believe that I could do it, then I kind of shattered that little dream,'' Emily Sweeney said. ''I was close. I was in front of her (Megan) on the last run and I hit at the start. She knew that she had it.''

''It was tough,'' added Megan, who retired after the Vancouver Olympics and today works in marketing. ''She was the first person (to congratulate me). Her smile, no matter what, was the most important thing that day.''

Disappointment notwithstanding, Emily Sweeney traveled to Whistler in support of her sister.

''It was very difficult going to the Games. It was an odd experience,'' she said. ''I was very excited for her, I was there to fully support her. But standing in the stands watching something that you were so close to was kind of difficult.''

Despite her upward swing in the sport - she won the 2013 junior world title - there was more disappointment for Emily. She also failed to make the Olympic team for Sochi as Erin Hamlin, Summer Britcher, and Hansen comprised the U.S. women's team.

''That was another disappointment,'' said Sweeney's mom, Sue. ''That was the lowest point for her, I think. It was very, very difficult for her to work through that.''

Emily's trademark stubbornness has helped her maintain focus as the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Korea creep closer and closer. A member of the U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program, she recently changed her off-season training regimen looking for an edge. The result: in the fall she dominated the women's team, winning the two seeding races and the national championship.

''She's had to race her way onto so many teams, and there's just so many spots,'' said Hamlin, a 2009 world champion and bronze medalist at Sochi. ''She just kind of gains momentum every time. It's really awesome to see her pushing me and beating me. That's kind of how it's supposed to go.''

No surprise that Sweeney's infectious smile seems even wider these days - she's an integral part of a season in which the U.S. women have emerged as a force in the sport for the first time. Hamlin, Sweeney and Britcher swept the podium in that order at Lake Placid, a first for the U.S. team, and Britcher led the World Cup standings, with Hamlin second and Sweeney fifth when the circuit returned to eastern Europe this weekend.

''Emily's tough. There's no doubt about it,'' said Gordy Sheer, who won Olympic silver in luge doubles at Nagano in 1998 and currently serves as director of marketing for USA Luge. ''The road to success is never a vertical line on the graph. There are always ups and downs, but Emily has managed to, despite all those peaks and valleys, keep things on the up. She's as tough as they come.

''Credit her for her perseverance and love of the sport because that's what keeps you going.''

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