Julia Clukey is back home in Augusta to spend the holidays with her family — particularly nephew Lucas, who will celebrate his fifth birthday Sunday with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cake.
“I’m always home for Christmas for six or seven days,” she said Friday afternoon. “But I haven’t been home for New Year’s for as long as I can remember.”
It’s a relaxed environment in stark contrast to Clukey’s recent bid to return to the U.S. Olympic luge team, which ended in Park City, Utah, last weekend when she missed qualifying for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, by 13 thousandths of a second.
“It’s hard, but that’s our sport,” said the 28-year-old Clukey, who placed 17th at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. “We often talk about how races can be won or lost by a small amount, but rarely does it come down to that small a margin, especially in a race that has such a great effect on you. I did everything I could, but I literally came up a hair short.”
Clukey believed her second run of that two-run World Cup stop would be sufficient to earn a top-five finish in the last of the five Olympic qualifying events — and a top-five finish would have secured her an automatic berth on the U.S. team.
She topped out at 80 miles per hour late in the run and completed the 5,500-foot-long slide in 44.003 seconds.
But seven other competitors remained, and five slid fast enough to relegate Clukey to sixth place in the final two-run standings, .013 seconds behind fifth-place Dajana Eitberger of Germany.
Three spots were available on the U.S. Olympic team, but Erin Hamlin had qualified with a previous top-five World Cup finish and Kate Hansen joined Hamlin in achieving that “A” standard by finishing fourth at Park City.
Clukey and 19-year-old Summer Britcher of Glen Rock, Pa., were left to compete for the final slot, with Britcher qualifying by achieving the higher “B” standard of two top-nine World Cup finishes in the five qualifying races while Clukey achieved the lower “C” selection standard of one top-nine World Cup finish and two other top-12 efforts.
“The qualifying system could be a lot simpler,” Clukey said, “but I don’t want to dwell on that. I just didn’t quite do what I needed to do.
“It was 13 thousandths of a second after two miles of racing and I did everything I could do. I’m not going to beat myself up over it because I know how hard I’ve worked and everything I’ve gone through over the last four years. I’m just ready to move forward.”
Clukey, who took up luge in 2002, said she will take some time before determining her long-term future in the sport.
“I’m still processing what happened, and just taking it one day at a time,” she said.
Clukey won’t resume the World Cup schedule in January — that’s an honor reserved for Olympic team members — but she plans to continue training at Lake Placid, N.Y., with an eye toward the end-of-season national championships in March.
Beyond that are the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea to consider. Clukey would be 32 by then, and while she said lugers often peak in their mid- to late-20s she also cited Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler, a two-time Olympic champion and winner of last week’s men’s race at Park City, who will turn 40 on Jan. 4.
“I love the sport of luge,” she said, “and I wouldn’t change anything about what I’ve done, the good days and bad days and the good races and bad races.”
For now, much of her focus will involve other priorities, including her role as spokeswoman for the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association’s responsibility initiative that includes speaking to high school students around the state about the importance of good decision making.
She’s also gearing up for the third year of Julia Clukey’s Camp for Girls on Maranacook Lake in Readfield. The 10-day summer camp for girls ages 8-11 is a collaboration with the Kennebec Valley YMCA that provides youngsters a place to develop self-confidence and a healthy lifestyle through activities such as swimming, kayaking, hiking, theater and music.
Clukey would have enjoyed sharing another Olympic success story with those campers and students, but she’s also convinced there’s a similarly valuable message in her recent near-miss.
“There are times in your life when you are going to face adversity and it’s up to you how to respond to it,” Clukey said shortly after the Park City race. “I certainly plan to learn from this experience and become an even stronger person.”