LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - Sgt. Taylor Morris could barely hide his emotions as he walked through the stands of the Lake Placid Olympic Center on Friday after learning he had finally become an Olympian, a goal he had been working toward for 16 years.
During the luge World Cup competition here, Morris and two of his Army teammates - Sgt. Emily Sweeney and Sgt. Matt Mortensen of the New York National Guard - qualified for the Olympic Winter Games that begin Feb. 9 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
For Morris, a weight had finally been lifted off his shoulders after narrowly missing qualification for the 2014 U.S. Luge Olympic Team. This weekend Morris finished fifth, claiming the final spot in the men's singles competition, posting times of 51.046 and 51.183 to secure his first Olympics with a combined time of 1:42.229.
After receiving congratulatory hugs from family and friends, Morris, still in his leotard, then found his wife, Megan, standing in the track exit, and the couple wrapped arms for two minutes. After the sprint race competition Saturday, Morris ranks 15th in the Viessmann Luge World Cup standings.
"We always believed in him," Megan Morris said. "There was never a second that we did not think he was capable."
"It's the biggest amount of redemption that you really could ever feel when you train for so long," Taylor said. "This is 16 years for me now, it means the world to have my family here - to have my home crowd cheering me on and wishing me the best."
Morris and his fellow Army World Class Athlete Program competitors braved the subzero temperatures and arctic wind chills to compete for their chance to represent the United States on the Olympic stage.
Sgt. Emily Sweeney
Joining Morris in PyeongChang will be WCAP's Sweeney, who qualified for her first Olympics in women's singles before even making her first run in the World Cup competition Friday. Sweeney's teammate, Raychel Germaine, failed to place in the top five during the Nation's Cup Competition last Thursday, leaving a slot open for Sweeney.
Sweeney's sister Megan, along with her parents, friends and family sat in the stands during the competition this week.
Emily missed qualifying for the Olympics in 2010 and 2014 when her sister Megan qualified. This week, the sergeant learned she made the squad after receiving a text message from her mother.
"I'm so fortunate to have all these people," Sweeney said. "And I'm so lucky. I really don't know what I did to deserve all this. They're amazing. And to have this experience with them … I know they fully support me no matter what I do."
After winning sprint race gold during the World Cup in Winterberg, Germany, in November, Sweeney did not make the cut for the sprints at Lake Placid, after committing a crucial error on her first run. Still, the setback did not dampen the 24-year-old's spirits.
"She's a tough athlete," said Gordy Sheer, USA Luge director of marketing and promotion. "She's rebounded really nicely and she's stronger and faster than she's ever been."
Sergeants Matt Mortensen and Jake Hyrns
Mortensen, of the 1156th Engineer Company in the New York National Guard, is
competing with luge partner Jayson Terdiman, will make his third Winter Olympics appearance after qualifying for PyeongChang in men's doubles.
"Matt is a really hard-working guy - a great guy," Sheer said. "The kind of guy you want to succeed. He does all the right things and is very focused."
Finally, Sgt. Jake Hyrns, competing in men's doubles with partner Anthony Espinoza, posted a personal-best time during their first run, but finished eighth, missing a spot on the Olympic team. Hyrns, a staff sergeant in the National Guard, will serve as an alternate for PyeongChang.
Nestled amid tall pine on Lake Placid's Mount Van Hoevenberg, the weather conditions presented a unique challenge for the luge competitors this weekend. On Lake Placid's slick and fast 3,707-foot course, the 26-year-old Morris finally found his footing. Morris' combined finishing time marked a career best.
"Taylor is certainly one of (our best) if not our best slider in terms of sheer ability to drive a sled down the hill," Sheer said. "He's blindingly fast. He suffered some heartache in the 2014 games, narrowly missed qualifying for the team, but he's hungry."
Morris, who began training in luge at age 10, missed the cut for the 2014 games by four-tenths of a second. Morris previously finished fifth at the World Championship spring race in Austria. He bounced back from finishing 20th during the World Cup qualifier in Calgary last week and 31st in the men's singles competition at Altenburg, Germany.
"This was the biggest dream in his life," said his wife Megan. "I can't even imagine how amazing this moment is for him. He has put in more hard work and more sacrifice than anybody else I've ever known and he finally was able to achieve his dream. This is the biggest moment for him."
World Class Athlete Program
The WCAP program, which provides Soldiers with the opportunity to train and earn places on Olympic and world championship teams, has been a welcome support system, said USA Luge's Sheer.
"The WCAP program has been huge for our athletes, it's really allowed them to serve and at the same time train and frankly make a living in a way that they haven't been able to do in the past," Sheer said. "It really allows them to think about luge as a career as opposed to something that they have to struggle to do. From my perspective as a USA Luge official, we're very proud and it's a point of honor to have athletes serving.
"Our WCAP athletes are not only obviously great athletes competing among the world's best, but they're also really great role model and they really do represent the best that our country has to offer," Sheer added.
While Mortensen and Terdiman posted a course-best time of 43.641 during their men's doubles race Dec. 15, German duo Sascha Benecken and Toni Eggert eventually broke the mark and won the gold in that event.
"The interesting thing about the sport today is you're seeing athletes stronger and faster," said Sheer, who won a silver medal in men's doubles at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. "You're also seeing a huge push in terms of technology and really trying to get the most out of the sleds. I think we're probably more technically engaged than we've ever been and it's by necessity; our competition's very fast and we're doing all we can to keep up with them -- and beat them."
Next stop for Sweeney, Morris and Mortensen: South Korea, where they will battle the world's best. Tavares said that the WCAP program has made the Soldier-athletes mentally stronger for the challenges that lie ahead in February.
"I've always said that the Soldiers I have are always mentally a little stronger than everybody else," said Tavares, who retired from the National Guard in September after serving as an enlisted Soldier and as an officer. "This is not the real world for (them). We're here playing. They're here (competing in the World Cup) but at any time they can get deployed -- they can get pulled. This is not their primary duty."
(Editor's note: WCAP Soldiers will also be vying early next month to qualify for the Olympics in bobsled, skeleton and hockey.)