PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Long before she took on such German luge juggernauts as two-time Olympic gold medalist Natalie Geisenberger, Summer Britcher faced the daunting trio of Will Jr., Alex and Meredith Britcher.
From hopscotch to Monopoly — Carrie and Bill Britcher, their parents, said they still can’t find all of the pieces after a flipped board incident — the Britcher kids were consumed with competition. In 2007, the siblings took their business to a free USA Luge Challenge event, which is designed to expose children to the sport, at Ski Liberty in Fairfield, Pa. Summer Britcher, 11 at the time, refused to let her three older siblings beat her, this time down a snow-covered hill resembling a luge track.
“It was just an innocent sled ride,” Bill Britcher said.
What started as a regular outing for the family from Glen Rock, Pa., became a recruiting event for Summer Britcher. Gordy Sheer, a 1998 men’s doubles silver medalist and now marketing director of USA Luge, noticed her competitiveness and size for her age.
“Somebody that didn’t know anything about the sport would’ve been able to see her excitement and enthusiasm,” Sheer said. He subsequently invited her to a screening camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Nearly 12 years later in Pyeongchang, before her second-ever Olympic singles luge competition on Monday, Britcher did not take the significance of that experience in Fairfield lightly.
“Where would my life be if we just hadn’t gone skiing that day, if we hadn’t been at Ski Liberty?” the Susquehannock High School graduate asked. “I think I’d be a completely different person.”
She finished third overall in the 2017-18 World Cup season, a career high, right behind Geisenberger and her German teammate, Dajana Eitberger. In March, Britcher placed first in Lillehammer, Norway, at the World Cup sprint race. It was her fifth individual career victory, making her the all-time leader in USA Luge men’s and women’s singles history. Now, after six official training runs at the Olympic Sliding Centre in Pyeongchang, Britcher said she feels that momentum heading into her event.
“I think I’m in the fight,” Britcher said. “So, knowing that I’m competing at that higher level […] it’s gonna mean so much more.”
In her first Olympics in Sochi, Britcher said she was “just happy to be competing.” She finished 15th. With newfound success thereafter came newfound expectations for her next Olympic appearance. But the road to Pyeongchang was not a steady ascent. Britcher crashed during the first event of the 2017-18 season in Austria, hindering her aspirations of qualifying for the World Cup immediately.
“It turned out to be a good thing for her because something snapped in her to change her outlook,” Bill Britcher said.
With a refreshed perspective on her sport, Summer Britcher will look to end her most successful World Cup season with an Olympic medal. Teammate Erin Hamlin is the only female American singles luger to stand atop the podium at an Olympics. (Chris Mazdzer earned silver in men’s singles here on Sunday.) To become the second woman, Britcher will have to speed past the historically dominant German team, which includes Geisenberger and Eitberger. However, heading into the race, Britcher said she is focused only on enjoying the moment.
“I was sitting up at the start before this training run and I thought, ‘OK. This is the last run before I have the most fun of my life’,” Britcher said.
Meanwhile, Britcher’s second-oldest brother, Alex, will cheer her on in standard fashion: with some harmless pre-race ribbing, a trademark that never faded as the siblings became adults.
“I always try to give her my super-knowledgeable luge advice,” he said. “‘Hey, just remember: go faster than everyone else and you’ll win.’ She’ll be like, ‘All right, Alex. Yeah, I know. You’re an idiot.’ ”
That’s the same good-natured teasing at the root of Summer Britcher’s luge journey, which culminates in Pyeongchang.
“If I didn’t have them,” Britcher said, “I would not be the athlete that I am.”