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.
“It’s the pinnacle of our sport,” she said. “It’s what you work for — day in and day out. I have very fond memories, and it was a huge moment in my life for myself, my family and my friends.”
Clukey said she has to stay in shape and will even continue sliding as an alternate for the U.S. luge team. And while she hasn’t decided what the future holds for her when it comes to the sport she loves, she has plenty to keep her busy.
At the top of that list is Olivia’s son, Lucas.
“He was there Friday and I don’t think he’s ever seen me upset,” she said. “He asked what was wrong, and I said, ‘I slid a little too slow.’ He said, ‘You were faster than a rocket ship.’ It’s very easy when I’m around him to put things in perspective.”
Clukey, her mom and her older sister, Amelia, have a great relationship with Lucas’ father, which allows them to spend a significant amount of time with him.
“He’s really the most important thing, and I want to make sure he’s loved and brought up in a great environment,” she said. “My sister (Olivia) is still a big part of my life. I’ll always have two sisters. We want to make sure he never loses that connection with his mother’s family.”
She knows that someday there will be a difficult discussion about mental illness, but right now she wants the almost 5-year-old boy just to know how much his mother loved him.
“Mental illness still doesn’t get the recognition it deserves,” she said. “There is such a stigma around it. It’s so hard. It’s a daily battle for people who struggle with it, and it’s something that’s just not understood.”
When asked about her future in the sport, she said she’s still processing what happened this weekend and what it means to her future.
“I would like to thank my coach Miko Zayonc, who has supported me as a person and an athlete since the beginning of my career, and particularly the last few years as I tried to rebuild myself as an athlete, and these past six weeks for believing in me right up to the final run,” she said. Gratitude punctuates every sentence Clukey speaks.
Instead of looking at how others might ease her pain, she’s already planning ways in which she can repay those who’ve supported her. At the top of that list is Julia Clukey’s Camp for Girls at Camp KV on Maranacook Lake in Readfield, Maine. The camp is for girls ages 8 to 11, and Clukey hopes to help them develop self-confidence through sport and a love of healthy lifestyles.
“When I’m doing something, I give it all of my energy,” she said. “If I’m training, I give that 100 percent. When I’m home, I try to be present 100 percent. It’s so important in life to give whatever you do 100 percent.”
Friday’s experience still stings. But it hasn’t even dampened her affection for sliding.
“I’m very glad that I’ve been involved in the sport of luge for 15 years,” she said. “I love sliding. It keeps me going. I’m very fortunate to have found something that I love doing. A lot of people, it takes them awhile to find something that they like, that they’re good at. I have no regrets about anything I’ve done in the sport.”
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