Emily Sweeney of USA smiles in the finish area after the women's race at the Luge World Championships in Koenigssee, Germany, Sunday Jan. 31, 2021. Credit: Andreas Schaad / AP

Emily Sweeney is on the brink of returning to the world’s biggest sporting stage as part of the U.S. Olympic luge team.

First come World Cup races in Oberhof, Germany, and St. Moritz, Switzerland, over the next two weekends that should serve as tune-ups for the 28-year-old Portland native.

Then there’s the omnipresent quest to avoid contracting COVID-19, a challenge that occupies considerable space in Sweeney’s thoughts as the days dwindle before she actually makes the flight from Europe to China to compete at the Beijing Winter Games that begin Feb. 4.

“We’re in the last two-week stretch before we start our process of getting over to China and we see it everywhere. Athletes are getting COVID, family, friends, everyone is testing positive right now and that freaks me out,” Sweeney said during a conference call Monday.

“I keep thinking of all the crappy situations I got through to get to this point and this just feels like such a big risk just to be existing in this world right now because I have that dream, I have that second [Olympic] bid in my grasp. I’m alarmingly aware of it.”

Sweeney is one of three American women who have qualified to compete in luge at Beijing along with third-time Olympian Summer Britcher of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, and newcomer Ashley Farquharson of Park City, Utah. They will be nominated this week to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee along with three men’s singles lugers and a two-man doubles tandem. The official release of all USA Olympic teams will occur Jan. 22-25.

The women’s singles competition is scheduled to be contested in four heats, two each on Feb. 7 and Feb. 8 at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre located in the Xiaohaituo mountain area approximately 45 miles northwest of downtown Beijing.

One thing Sweeney — who attended school in Falmouth until age 10 before moving with her family to Connecticut — has not been thinking about is her Olympic debut in 2018 at Pyeongchang, South Korea, when she crashed during her final run and suffered multiple injuries, including broken bones in her back and neck, a badly sprained ankle and a concussion.

“It is in the back of my mind,” she said, “but honestly I talked a lot about it leading up to the beginning of the season and then I turned that part of my brain off because it’s draining for me to go back there. It was super challenging, but right now I’m just focused toward building momentum toward the next shot.”

Sweeney made her first bid for an Olympic berth at age 16 in 2010 but lost out on the final Team USA slot in a race-off that included older sister Megan, who finished 22nd at that year’s Vancouver Winter Games.

Sweeney won the 2013 junior world championship but came up short of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team for the 2014 Sochi Games before earning the chance four years later to slide at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.

While Sweeney walked away from the horrific crash on Curve 9 at the Alpensia Sliding Centre near Pyeongchang she was sidelined for six months before resuming training that led to a third-place finish in her first World Cup race of the 2018-19 season at Whistler, British Columbia, and the bronze medal at the 2019 world championships.

Sweeney placed seventh at the 2021 world championships in late January, then became the first U.S. woman to earn a top-five World Cup finish this season, placing fifth at Altenberg, Germany, on Dec. 11.

That marked a major step toward Sweeney’s return to the U.S. Olympic team, earning her Tier A qualification despite missing the previous two World Cup events in Sochi, Russia, because as a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program she was prevented from entering Russia based on a U.S. Department of Defense mandate.

“If we went off overall results it would have been much more challenging to still believe that I would have a chance [to qualify for the Olympics],” Sweeney said. “I knew that yes, I had two less opportunities to qualify, but each race was its own opportunity. I just had to do the best I could with each situation.”

Sweeney added a sixth-place finish the following weekend at Igls, Austria.

“For me the next two World Cups are about trying to find some consistency,” she said. “I’ve shown that I have a lot of speed and now I just need to figure out how to put two solid runs together going into four solid runs at the Olympics.

“The next two weeks for me are just trying to find consistency while maintaining my speed and not getting COVID.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...