Julia Clukey had barely touched down in Vancouver, and she realized something was different. On one side, there was a customs line for everybody else. On the other side, there was a customs line specifically for athletes competing in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

“Right from the beginning, you realize how special it is,” Clukey, an Augusta native and member of the United States luge team, said.

Ben Koons, a Messalonskee High School graduate, competed for New Zealand’s Nordic ski team in Vancouver (Koons had dual citizenship). He remembers the attention his sport suddenly received.

“You get a lot of athletes who, nobody cares about your sport until the Olympics,” Koons said. “Then there’s a lot of pressure.”

The London Summer Olympics are underway. For the athletes, like Clukey and Koons, competing is just a small piece of the entire Olympic experience.

“It’s neat to talk to other athletes from other sports and countries. You learn about the little things in their sport. You tell them about yours,” Clukey said.

In Vancouver, Clukey and the rest of the United States luge team shared a building with other U.S. athletes and a group of Australians. Next door was the United States biathlon squad. Usually, there are two athletes to a room. Clukey lucked out and got a single. The beds were small, Clukey said, and every two rooms shared a bathroom.

The village cafeteria was the place to really sit down and talk with athletes from other countries, Koons said.

“It was kind of like middle school. The first couple of days, everybody is sitting with their own teams,” Koons, back home in Sidney for the summer, said. “By the end, there was a lot of mixing and mingling.”

If you wanted to watch television, you had to go to a common lounge. There were no televisions in the dorm room. But who wants to sit around watching TV when there’s an Olympic village, and an entire city, to explore?

“Every day, I’d wake up ready to go,” Clukey said. “It was important to see as much as I could.”

Clukey competed early in the Vancouver games. By the end of day four, the women’s luge was complete. That left Clukey with nearly two weeks to check out events and explore Vancouver and Whistler, the mountain resort that hosted many events.

Clukey watched a lot of hockey. She was in the crowd when the U.S. men lost to Canada in the gold medal game in overtime. That was heartbreaking, she said. She fell in love with Nanaimo bars, the traditional Vancouver desert, a creamy, chocolate cookie.

“When I was done competing, I ate a lot of those,” Clukey said.

Koons’ last event, the 50-kilometer Nordic race, was on the last day. Unlike many athletes, Koons didn’t do any relaxing or partying as the games wound down.

“I had to really stay focused,” Koons said. “You don’t go to the Olympics for the party.”

Day by day, you could tell who was performing well and who was not happy in their effort, just by watching body language, Clukey said. Some athletes came back to the village beaming. Others came back with slumped shoulders and a frown.

“You could tell the people who were disappointed, or if the celebration already had begun,” Clukey said.

Outside the athletes village, Team USA had a house, and hosted parties and meetings. Clukey would go there and chat with fellow athletes and sponsors.

“There was no drinking allowed in the village. If you came back at night and were loud, and somebody complained, you were going to be in trouble.” Clukey said.

Koons saw no trouble in the village, just other athletes excited to be among the word’s best.

“There’s a really positive vibe in the village,” Koons said. “Everybody’s really psyched to be there.”

The Olympics can be a party. They should be fun, Clukey said, but the ultimate goal, amid all the sight-seeing and getting to know other athletes, is to compete your hardest.

“The biggest thing is to remember why you’re there,” Clukey said. “Stick to your routine. Don’t get caught up in all the excitement.”

Enjoy every minute of it, not just the time competing. There is no guarantee you’ll be back.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

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