After Julie Clukey described what it’s like to hurtle down a mountain course of ice while lying on a small sled, she waited for someone in her audience of elementary school students to ask the questions that are always asked.

Does she crash? Is she ever scared?

Clukey won’t fib. Competing in luge at speeds faster than 80 mph can be dangerous. The Olympian from Augusta understands the risks and the comfort level needed to compete at the highest levels.

Which is one reason she grieves for Sarah Burke. Clukey didn’t know personally the Canadian freestyle skier who died Thursday from injuries suffered in a practice session. They were sisters in a tight community that can seem a world apart from the pedestrians among us.

“There is certainly a bond that winter athletes share with each other, especially the skiers and snowboarders,” wrote Alex Tuttle in an email. The 21-year-old snowboarder from Stratton has been competing in Europe in advance of the Winter X Games which begin next week in Aspen, Colo.

“Snowboard cross is certainly a high stakes sport and it tests the nerve of an athlete to its breaking point,” Tuttle wrote. “It takes hundreds of little steps to achieve the level of confidence and comfort that an experienced racer has.

“What needs to be taken away by the fans is the respect that these sports deserve. The amount of risk that all of us take is not only to achieve our own goals but to entertain the masses. That can sometimes have dire consequences.”

X Games events are the ooh and aah sports of this generation. You marvel at the control of athletes in extreme situations and gasp at the out-of-control moments.

Kim Stacey, the coach of the elite snowboard team at Carrabassett Valley Academy, met Burke in 2003 when they competed against each other. The two became friends. “Sarah’s passing has been extremely tough. We know that she trained hard, was focused and doing what she loved,” wrote Stacey in an email from Colorado where she’s training her CVA team.

“As hard as it is to accept, sometimes accidents happen, whether it be skiing or driving a car. Taking risks is part of what we do. But they are calculated and educated risks. We do not just go out and ‘huck and hope’ as they say.”

I once talked to Kevin Kaminski, the former Portland Pirates player shortly after his unshielded face was smashed by a speeding puck. I asked if this was the end of his hockey career.

Kaminski was incredulous. The ice was his living room. His comfort level would still be high after his lengthy recovery. He couldn’t wait to lace up his skates.

After Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed during practice on two separate weekends at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, fellow drivers fought their tears and returned to the track to wring as much speed as they could from their race cars. Dale Earnhardt lost his life at Daytona and drivers told me they measured the risks again. And continued to race.

Joey Gamache’s living room was inside a professional boxing ring. If he was ever afraid of the risks, the former world lightweight champ would have to stop, he said.

Clukey spoke to children at Manchester Elementary School on Wednesday, the day before Burke passed away. She returns to Lake Placid today to continue the training that is her safety net.

She had interrupted that training last year to have surgery to correct a congenital defect at the base of her skull that limited blood flow, causing headaches. It took an extra six weeks past the expected recovery period for her to regain her comfort level on the course.

“Mentally and physically,” Clukey said on Friday. “If you’re being distracted by anything, you can’t do it. Now, I feel 100 percent.”

Her world was shaken nearly two years ago in Vancouver at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Nodar Kumaritashvili from Georgia was killed during a practice run on the luge course.

She can empathize with the Winter X Games competitors who must deal with Burke’s passing.

“It was hard to refocus,” said Clukey. “I’ve always kept a journal and I looked back through a lot of what I wrote to reinforce my confidence. But I’d be lying if I say it didn’t come back into my mind. Death is so final.”


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