AUGUSTA — In a perfect world, Julia Clukey knows she would be making this announcement in March 2018 shortly after the next Winter Olympics. That was the plan.
The universe likes to crumple our plans into a little ball and throw it in our face while it laughs, though, so Clukey made her announcement today, a warm August day 18 months too early.
In announcing her retirement from luge on Tuesday afternoon, Clukey brought an end to a career that saw her travel the world, win a national championship, and compete at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Not bad for something that began when Clukey was 12 and tried street luge in Portland just to get a free T-shirt.
“I immediately got hooked on the sport, on the very first run I took at Lake Placid. It was just, I mean, it’s awesome. There’s nothing else like it,” Clukey said.
In 2011, Clukey had brain surgery for Arnold-Chiari, a disorder that causes headaches, neck and muscle pain and numbness. She continued her career, winning the national championship in 2012, but at the end of this past luge season, the symptoms returned. Headaches, pain in her right shoulder. New scans revealed more fluid in her spinal column. After discussing options with her doctor and family, Clukey made the decision to retire. The plan to continue competing through the 2018 season, to try to earn a spot on Team USA for the 2018 Winer Olympics, suddenly changed.
“You know your body more than anything. I’ve been at this a really long time. It felt like something was starting to not really go in a good direction,” Clukey said. “I started tracking things again, seeing if there was something we could do in my training that I could change. I was trying to squeak another 18 months out of my body. That’s my mindset. I wanted to make sure I went down every avenue before I got to here.”
Here came earlier than expected, but here isn’t a bad place to be. Clukey will continue to run her inspiring summer camp for girls. She’ll continue to travel the state on behalf of the Maine Beer and Wine Distributors Association, speaking to students about making good choices and overcoming adversity.
Julia Clukey will always be able to write “Olympian” after her name, and a retirement arriving 18 months earlier than planned cannot change that.
“You know, when you have pain every day, it’s a really tough thing. I’m such a competitor, I have to be able to train the way I want to be able to train,” Clukey said. “I can’t do anything halfway, and I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to train what would be needed for a sport like luge, especially in the competitive environment of our team right now. I’m an all-in person.”
Clukey can easily rattle off career highlights. The 2012 national championship and 2010 Olympics, obviously. Medals won on the World Cup circuit. The 2009 World Championships at Lake Placid. It’s her teammates she’ll miss the most. She told them of her decision to retire on a conference call on Monday night.
“One of the toughest things is going to be missing the people. My teammates are a second family to me,” Clukey said.
Clukey earned her degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maine, and is looking at graduate school. She’s already working for Wex in South Portland. It takes big-time mental toughness to keep your cool while sledding down a track at 90 miles per hour, with the only thing protecting you a helmet and a spandex bodysuit. That mental toughness will serve Clukey well in whatever she does next.
“Your decisions are what matters. There’s that fine line of pushing it and trying to get those thousandths of a second, to being completely out of control,” Clukey said. “Everything’s extremely precise. You’re so focused. Once you get off the handle, time really slows down. There’s so much you’re focused on. Your position on the sled. How your equipment feels.”
The timetable gets moved up, but when the universe turns your plan into spitballs and taunts you, do you sulk, or do you move on?
You know which choice Clukey made.
“If you had asked me six months ago, I would’ve told you no, but I feel like in a way I’ve been planning for this for five years now,” Clukey said. “I’m going to wake up tomorrow, and put it into drive, and keep going.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242