June 21, 2018
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Olympic luger from Augusta, who overcame adversity, a gold medal role model

By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff

READFIELD, Maine —- The first days of summer are brimming with excitement along the shore of Maranacook Lake at Camp KV.

It’s common to see kids frolicking in the water and invading the main lodge to work on art projects. Then there is “Julia Time,” one of Marah Rand’s favorite exercises each day.

“Julia Time is when you get to learn a little bit about yourself, and you also get to learn about other people and know them better,” said Rand, a sixth-grader from nearby Manchester.

Spurring conversations that foster positive relationships is one of the many motivations behind Julia Clukey’s Camp for Girls. The Olympic luger from Augusta designed the 10-day camp to promote self-confidence and a healthy lifestyle for girls entering fourth through eighth grades.

More than 100 girls participated in this year’s camp, including 11-year-old Natalie Whitten of Manchester, who attended all three years the camp has been running.

“I’m probably going to go all the years I can,” she said, “and the thing I think I’ll learn the most is probably just to never back down, to keep getting up and going forward and not go backwards.”

That’s just the sort of message the 29-year-old Clukey — who competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, and narrowly missed a return trip to the 2014 Winter Games in Russia — wants her campers to take with them into high school and adulthood.

“The most important thing to me is the personal connection with the girls,” said Clukey, who follows up throughout the year, writing two or three written notes to each camper. “I want them to realize when they leave camp that there are other people in the community who care about them regardless of the situation in their home.

“If they leave camp knowing that someone else cares about them and they feel that connection, that’s what’s most important to me.”

A willing role model

Clukey’s emergence as a role model for youngsters around the state is not limited to camp week: It’s a year-round responsibility she embraces.

“A lot of it came just from my upbringing,” Clukey said. “My parents were very supportive of (Clukey and her two sisters) doing a lot of activities and never allowing us to be held back because we were girls.

“And growing up volunteering was always very important to my parents. My mother is so involved in the Augusta community, through (recreation) boards and making sure parks stay open for kids. When you grow up under that, you recognize the value of giving back to your community.”

Clukey runs her camp in conjunction with the Kennebec Valley YMCA and the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association, and she speaks to school groups on behalf of the latter organization about the importance of self-responsibility and good decision making.

“A few years ago the association was trying to figure out a way to give back to communities, and young people in particular, because we deal in products — beer and wine — that require responsible behavior,” said Nick Alberding, CEO and owner of Pine State Trading Co. of Gardiner and president of the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association.

“I created a list of people who could possibly serve as a voice, then I Facebooked Clukey and heard back from her. I met her and instantly knew she’d be perfect for this role.”

Clukey made her initial presentation in 2010 at the Gardiner Area High School fall sports code-of-conduct meeting.

“The more she did it, the more schools wanted her,” Alberding said. “She’s been from Aroostook County to Kittery, and her story is so compelling because she’s been through so many great things and so many challenges.

“Kids don’t need someone preaching at them, they need role models to follow and when she’s speaking to kids there’s something about her that’s just magical.”

Clukey has spoken to more than 10,000 Maine students from 35 different schools.

“Julia’s message was on target and included perseverance, positive attitude, great work ethic and goal setting,” Dexter Regional High School principal Steve Bell said on Clukey’s website, www.clukeyluge.com. “It’s a great message, and coming from a girl from Maine made it even more effective for our students.”

After the early success of the speaking engagements, Alberding and Clukey branched out to a younger audience through the summer camp.

“I’d been speaking at the high school level for two years at that point, and being a female athlete I saw a dire need for a positive female role model,” Clukey said. “That’s really some that’s lacking out there — people encouraging young girls to go after their dreams. I approached (Alberding) about doing a daylong clinic, sort of like a conference for girls, and he came back with the idea of having a summer camp.

“I usually don’t say no to things and I love connecting with kids and I went to summer camp as a kid. So we approached the KV YMCA, and they were excited about the idea so we just ran with it.”

Clukey is acutely aware her status as a world-class athlete has enabled her to reach out to Maine’s youth.

“If it weren’t for luge, I wouldn’t be able to do any of this. And most of the things I relate to students are things I learned from luge, whether it’s being successful or failing at races and not doing well,” she said. “That’s a big part of the message that things are going to go wrong in life, but the big thing is to pick yourself back up. It’s OK to not make a goal; you just set a new goal. Don’t give up on yourself and push forward.”

Of T-shirts and titles

Clukey’s life experiences provide a road map to such wisdom, given her own triumphs and tragedies.

She was 12 years old when she saw an advertisement for a summertime USA Luge recruiting effort in Portland. Motivated by the promise of free T-shirts, Clukey and a friend made the trip south.

“Every kid wants a free T-shirt,” she said.

But given the chance to try out a wheeled sled that day, she became hooked on luge — and the adrenaline rush remains the same 17 years later.

“You’re just constantly on that edge of having no control and having complete control,” said Clukey of the luge experience, which for the sport’s elite involves winding downhill slides on an icy track at speeds reaching the low 80 miles per hour.

Clukey competed in soccer and tennis while she was a student at Cony High School in Augusta, but she also was speeding up the international junior luge ranks — by the age of 17, she had captured numerous Junior World Cup titles.

Her career blossomed during the 2006-07 season, when she placed fourth at the U.S. senior nationals. Then, a fifth-place effort at the 2009 World Championships provided was the ultimate source of momentum that propelled her to a berth on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.

Clukey finished 17th at the Vancouver Games and has maintained her status near the top of the U.S. rankings since — particularly during 2012, when she placed sixth overall in the World Cup standings, won the U.S. national championship and was named USA Luge Female Athlete of the Year.

Clukey also was ranked first among American women’s lugers entering the 2013-14 season, but her quest for a trip to the 2014 Winter Olympics came up an agonizing 13 thousandths of a second short at the final qualifying event in Park City, Utah.

“It’s the biggest loss in my career,” she said. “I was very strong going into the season, but I had a few bad races to start out the year, struggled with a couple of things. And then to miss it by 13 thousandths of a second was tough.”

While disappointed with that near-miss, Clukey heeded her own motivational messages and bounced back to win the season-ending national seeding races in March back at her home track in Lake Placid, New York.

“I was happy I was able to win those races at the end of the season, beating my teammate (Summer Britcher) who competed at the Olympics, so that felt really good,” she said. “It was the perfect way to end the season for myself.”

Coping with adversity

While those 13 thousandths of a second that kept Clukey from an Olympic encore are impossible to forget, they’re far from the her first instance of personal and physical adversity.

She left the sport briefly in 2004 after her father, Robert, died of a heart attack at age 51. Her own physical ailments, including a torn meniscus, a herniated disc in her neck, and most alarmingly a congenital brain disorder called Arnold-Chiari Syndrome that left her fatigued and with extreme headaches, have sidelined her as well.

That condition, which hindered her performance at the Vancouver Olympics, led to skull surgery that forced her to sit out the 2011 season.

Clukey also had to deal with the suicide of younger sister Olivia on April 28, 2010, at age 22.

Clukey continues to honor her deceased sister’s memory through her close relationship with Olivia’s son, Lucas, now 5. Such family responsibilities were a major consideration this spring, when she decided to continue her luge career for at least one more season.

“My family is very important to me, and we’ve had our own struggles over the last four years,” Clukey said. “I’m very connected to my nephew Lucas. Leaving him is very difficult, so I needed to sit down and really think because I wanted to be sure if I was going to continue to slide that I was going to do it fully and be able to take myself away from home when necessary and be very present and ready for my sport.”

Clukey is healthy and as busy as ever these days, even though summer camp is over for another year and school presentations on hiatus until the fall.

She resumed regular workouts a month ago in preparation for the coming World Cup luge season, which begins in late November and includes a stop at Lake Placid in early December.

“There are still things I want to accomplish in the sport,” she said, “and in talking with my mother even up to a couple of days ago she was like, ‘You have to go. You want it, and there’s nothing wrong with still wanting to go after it. You have to go after your dreams, you have to keep going so you don’t have any regrets.’”

Clukey also is studying electrical engineering through DeVry University with an eye toward a post-luge career in computer programming — she had three final exams during camp week alone.

“From where I am now to where I was four years ago, it’s weird (to think about). But I feel much better and fuller now than I did after Vancouver and attaining that goal, because I just didn’t have a lot of balance in my life then,” she said. “I think balance is really important now. My family is very important to me, and I’m far prouder of the work I’ve done off my sled and the connections I’ve been able to make with Maine youth.”

While competing and learning remain priorities for Clukey, so, too, is teaching — even though tangible results may not come until long after a given presentation.

“Down the road sometimes I’ll get Facebook messages from kids, and they’ll say, ‘I’ve just decided to go to this school, and I’m so excited,’” she said. “I think that’s when it hits them that they recognize that they’re making decisions for themselves and that there’s value in taking charge of their lives.

“That’s a good feeling.”

Schools interested in scheduling Julia Clukey for a presentation this fall or next spring may obtain more information by accessing www.clukeyluge.com.

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