Amy Donaldson: Balance is how Julia Clukey will overcome disappointment of losing her Olympic dream

Published: Sunday, Dec. 15 2013 7:15 p.m. MST

PARK CITY — Julia Clukey has dedicated her life to an Olympic sport that most people don’t even know exists.

There is very little fame, and even less fortune, associated with luge for an American athlete. None of that mattered to Clukey, who fell early — and completely — for what’s known around the world as “the fastest sport on ice.”

So when she stood on the platform at the Utah Olympic Park on Friday and watched the dream she’s been chasing for the last four years slip through her fingers by a fraction of a second so small it's less than the blink of an eye, she was disappointed beyond description.

But as gut-wrenching as it was to miss making the U.S. Olympic luge team by 0.013 seconds, she doesn’t see it as a tragedy.

Even at 28, she knows the difference.

Clukey lost her father at 19 to a heart attack.

She lost her younger sister Olivia to suicide 3 1/2 years ago.

“Those two things are certainly the only tragedies I’ve experienced in my life,” she said Sunday. “Having bad luge races, getting a speeding ticket, they’re not so massive.”

Despite dedicating herself to luge since she was in middle school, Clukey’s managed to do something that’s difficult for anyone to achieve, especially an elite athlete.

“Honestly, I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to build great balance into my life,” she said. “My nephew, my work in the community, my education, my summer camp — luge is what I do, but’s not who I am as a person. I was very upset Friday, but I’m not going to sit here and beat myself up. I gave it my all to perform. I had a great race, and I literally missed it by a hair.”

The miniscule measurement of time that stole her dream is even more agonizing for those who know the battle she’s waged just to stay competitive in the dangerous sport after being diagnosed with a rare congenital disorder.

In the season leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Clukey experienced severe headaches and weakness on the right side of her body.

“At first they thought it was a disk in my neck,” she said. Then she met a doctor from California and in a casual conversation during training, she described her symptoms to him.

“He said, ‘Come see me after the games,'” she said. “He thought something more was wrong with me.”

The diagnosis was frightening, but also a relief.

“You start to think you’re losing your mind when nothing gets better,” she said of trying to diagnose what she now knows was Arnold-Chiari malformation, a condition in which a malformation causes brain tissue to extend into the spinal canal and also puts pressure on the brain, causing a number of issues and symptoms.

Clukey competed in the 2010 Olympics, symptoms and all, and still finished 17th. She had surgery, which included shaving some of her skull away to give her brain more room, in March 2011. The recovery kept her off the ice for nearly a year.

Despite setbacks, she remained committed to working for a spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic luge team.

“I still have a few issues with it,” she said. “But it’s night and day to what I was experiencing. It’s never completely gone, and I’ll always have some issues.”

Her experience in Vancouver just stoked her desire to represent the U.S. in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

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