For Julia Clukey, the last Olympic season was unforgettable, for both the best and worst kind of reasons.
In short, this is how the first few months of 2010 went for the U.S. luge veteran: Qualified for the Olympic team, slogged through the season despite being in constant physical agony, popped green painkilling tablets for several weeks to make it through, accidentally bumped into a doctor who wound up saving her career, started feeling better, then dealt with the unspeakable shock of her sister committing suicide.
“When all that happens,” Clukey, an Augusta native and Cony High School graduate, said, “your life just changes.”
Healthy and happy again, Clukey has overcome all that and much more. And when the World Cup schedule opens this weekend in Lillehammer, Norway the 28-year-old figures to be among the top hopes USA Luge has on the international circuit during this season that ends at the Sochi Olympics in February.
Clukey finished last season ranked sixth in World Cup points, one spot ahead of U.S. teammate and former world champion Erin Hamlin. And after essentially being held back in the runup to the 2010 Olympics because of the pains in her head, neck, arms and hands, Clukey is entering this Olympic year with plenty of momentum.
“The tough thing was the surgery,” U.S. coach Mark Grimmette said. “Not for her to deal with, because she’s been through a lot, but more for us as coaches to see what was going to happen with her after that. And she has come back strong.”
Clukey started to feel like something was wrong in 2009, when she had a constant heavy feeling in her shoulders. That, combined with headaches and tingling in her right hand and right arm, led some to conclude that she had a disk problem, which is common in luge. Turns out, she did. The disks were fixed. The problems came back a month later.
“No one really knew what was going on,” Clukey said.
Fast forward to February 2010, at the track for the Vancouver Olympics. Clukey was studying the surface when Dr. Robert Bray — assigned to the team for the games — was nearby and struck up a conversation by asking if she was having any sort of medical issues. Her first instinct was to blow off the question. Instead, she answered.
It probably saved her career.
Bray listened and recognized symptoms related to Arnold-Chiari Syndrome, which occurs when brain tissue extends into the spinal canal and causes a number of easily misdiagnosed problems. Had Bray happened to walk up the track a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later, he and Clukey might have never had the conversation.
“It was lifechanging,” Clukey said.
So was April 28, 2010.
That was the day Clukey’s sister Olivia, who battled mental illness and addiction issues, committed suicide, leaving behind a 1 1/2-year-old son — all this happening one day before Clukey’s birthday.
“You don’t get over it. You never do,” Clukey said. “Things change for you. You learn how to live a different way, think a different way. We talk about my sister. I’ll always have two sisters. I’ll never say I have just one sister.”
Olivia’s son has split time with Clukey, another sister and his father ever since.
“I’m happy. I love my nephew and I love my life and I love my family and friends back home,” Clukey said. “There’s always that piece of me that has that doubt of something I could have done differently. It’s hard not to blame yourself. You analyze every little thing you did.”
In March 2011, she finally had the surgery with Bray, who removed a small piece of her skull to relieve the amount of pressure that fluid was putting on her brain. Her recovery took about a year.
Midway through the four-year Olympic cycle, Clukey was not on the international circuit and training alone. Turns out, that was what she needed.
“It was a blessing,” Clukey said. “It gave me time to heal mentally, just being by myself, not feeling pressure, not having to listen to anyone. If I woke up and didn’t want to slide, I didn’t have to slide. It also gave me a lot of time to test things with my equipment and really understand how my sled works and what’s best for me as an athlete. I never had gotten a chance to do that.”
Last season was a breakthrough, when Clukey won her first medal on the World Cup tour, a silver in Lake Placid. Her nephew was there for that one. Another Olympic season has now arrived, and Clukey — whose inspiration for trying out for luge in 1997 was, of all things, a free T-shirt — is ready for the challenge.
“The Germans are going to be tough,” Clukey said. “The Russians are going to be tough with their home-track advantage. But I’m going to do everything I can to keep moving forward and make sure that I’m ready too.”