PARK CITY, Utah - On a clear, cold day in the Wasatch Mountains, the Sweeney Smile warmed the Utah Olympic Park and every American in the venue as the Suffield, Conn. luger, in her final race as a junior, won the women's singles gold medal Tuesday at the 2013 Junior Luge World Championships in Park City.
The event is for juniors up to the age of 20. A total of 14 nations were entered in the event that concluded Wednesday.
Sweeney, who has raced in the World Cup the entire season, relegated Germany to second, third and fourth places. She had a pair of runs down the 2002 Olympic track that totaled 1 minute, 28.121 seconds. Her teammate, Summer Britcher, of Glen Rock, Pa., a member of the United States gold medal performance in the 2012 Youth Olympic Games (YOG), blistered the second heat with the fastest run and improved from ninth to sixth place in 1:28.368.
"I had pretty rough training this week. It was inconsistent," said Sweeney, the U.S. singles gold medalist who secured the team's 21st World/Junior World Championship gold medal in its history. "I'd thrown down some good runs but I had a lot of issues, too. I had that feeling I was going to pull it together for race day. I've never had that feeling before and it happened."
Sweeney, a new member of the Army National Guard who spent last off season fulfilling her military commitment, has battled injury since a training camp in Sochi, Russia in early November. She has overcome ankle, knee and calf problems. The gold medal winner captured two Junior World Cups on the 2002 Olympic track 13 months ago.
The U.S. men were led by Tucker West, of Ridgefield, Conn., another member of the 2012 YOG gold medal effort. He was 10th. The youngest USA Luge Indoor Start Champion in team history, the 17 year old West has been racing up in class among the older juniors the entire season.
Sweeney grabbed a slim 0.01 of a second lead in the opening heat, and propelled by two fast starts, extended that in the final run. Caroline von Schleinitz took silver in 1:28.182, with Natalie Burkhardt recording the bronze medal time of 1:28.215.
"This race has definitely been in the back of my mind," continued Sweeney, whose family roots trace back to Saranac Lake. "I've been looking forward to this for a while. It's not often we have a junior worlds on American soil. It takes the advantage away from the European nations. I was really excited we got to host them."
Britcher recorded the fastest second heat in the field, and improved from ninth to sixth place in her second junior world championship event.
"Overall the second run was better. It was pretty decent up top but I had problems in (curves) 13-14," said Britcher. "I skidded at the start of the first run and went to the left. And had a pretty big skid in 10-11 and almost hit the right wall. It was messy disappointing."
Similar to Britcher, Theresa Buckley finished with a much improved second leg and totaled 1:28.829, which was good enough for 11th place.
Raychel Germaine, who raced in the YOG singles a year ago, had a combined 1:29.939 and wound up 23rd. Buckley and Germaine, in their second season of international competition, raced in their first junior worlds.
Dominik Fischnaller, of Germany, fresh from his first World Cup medal two weeks ago in Koenigssee, Germany, won the men's gold medal, totaling 1:27.263 for the two legs. He made the race strictly an event for the silver medal. Teammate Emanuel Rieder was a distant second in 1:27.511, with Austrian David Gleirscher taking bronze in 1:27.525.
West's two-heat time of 1:27.882 put him 0.6 of a second behind Fischnaller. The 19 year old Italian is considered the successor to Armin Zoeggeler, the 39 year old two-time Olympic champion. Kevin Fischnaller, also of Italy, placed fourth and missed a medal by only 0.01.
Dominik Fischnaller was never threatened, easily recording the fastest individual heat times of both legs.
Aidan Kelly, of West Islip, N.Y., the highest ranked American in the Junior World Cup with an eighth place standing, finished 16th in 1:28.091. Riley Stohr, of Whitehall, Mich. was 18th in 1:28.185. Ty Andersen, of Alpine, Utah, another gold medalist in the YOG, was 20th in 1:28.283.
Andersen will compete Wednesday in the doubles contest, with sled mate Anthony Espinoza, of Park City. The race begins at 10 AM Mountain Time, followed by the Team Relay which concludes the 2013 Junior World Championships.
In the finale, the U.S. will enter Sweeney, West, Andersen and Espinoza in the relay.