BIDDEFORD, Maine — Between spending nearly half of each year training out-of-state, helping run a summer camp for girls and taking her motivational story on a speaking tour of Maine schools, Augusta native and Olympic luger Julia Clukey doesn’t have much time to treat herself.
So on Tuesday morning at Biddeford High School, the seniors at her latest speaking engagement took the initiative to surprise the busy athlete.
After Clukey finished her remarks and asked if anyone in the audience had questions, the students instead sang “Happy Birthday” and cheered as principal Jeremie Sirois emerged from backstage with a red, white and blue cake.
“I’m not a big birthday person, so I don’t usually [publicize it],” said a surprised Clukey, who thanked the students for the gesture.
The luger, who made the 2010 U.S. Olympic team and narrowly missed a chance to join this year’s team as well, has spoken at 33 different schools since she and the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association launched a speaking tour about responsible behavior four years ago.
After a scheduled talk in Westbrook next month, Clukey will have reached 10,000 Maine students through her visits. Tuesday’s cake is perhaps an example of how well the athlete is able to connect with young Mainers, even with just brief interactions.
“I get messages throughout the year through my Facebook fan page. They send me messages about the colleges they’re going to or the new sports they’re trying,” Clukey told the BDN after the Biddeford event. “That’s when it hits me that even though I only saw them for 30 minutes, they see me as somebody who cares about them, and I do. I want all Maine kids to succeed.”
Sirois said, “it’s nice for our kids to see someone from Maine doing good things.”
“I think sometimes they might think, ‘Oh, I’m just from Maine, no one will notice me,’” he said.
Clukey told the crowd of Biddeford seniors she’s proof that Mainers can get noticed. She was invited to Lake Placid, N.Y., to try out for the U.S. National Luge Team at the age of 11 after participating in a promotional event in Portland — she was attracted to the event because of the promise of a free T-shirt to anyone who turned out.
Since then, she has endured the premature deaths of her younger sister and father, as well as knee and brain surgeries — the latter to correct a rare condition known as Arnold-Chiari malformation, in which the base of her skull blocks the flow of spinal fluid to the brain and causes painful headaches.
“As many peaks as I’ve had in my career, I’ve had at least as many valleys,” Clukey told the Biddeford audience.
“It isn’t enough to just love what you’re doing and follow your dreams, you have to … work hard,” she added. “No matter the talent other people have, the hard work is something you can own yourself.”
Clukey finished 17th in the 2010 Olympic games, then 13 thousandths of a second away from qualifying to compete in the 2014 games, a margin she equated to a fingernail’s distance over more than 2 miles of total sledding.
“How many of you thought I was just laying there [on the luge]?” Clukey asked Tuesday’s crowd, seeing a few hands sheepishly rise. “There are actually little movements the whole way down. Even the slightest movement of my shoulder can make the sled go left or right. When you’re going in excess of 80 mph, you can’t thrash around, because that’s when the sled gets off balance and you lose control.”
After the latest Olympic disappointment, Clukey bounced back with a pair of gold medals in the Winter National Seeding Races last month, key in helping determine who makes the 2014-15 U.S. luge team.
On Tuesday, Clukey said she’s “in a deciding phase on whether or not I’m going to keep going in the sport of luge.” She said her high school outreach efforts and namesake summer camp for girls on Maranacook Lake in Readfield remain top priorities for her.
“It was really motivational,” said Biddeford High School senior Autumn Carey of Clukey’s talk. “She really opened my eyes. When I go off to college, I’m really going to look for opportunities and take chances when they’re presented to me.”