AUGUSTA — It started with a quest for a free T-shirt in Portland. It ended, without tears or regrets, in a classroom at the Kennebec Valley YMCA in her hometown.

Olympian luger Julia Clukey announced her retirement from the sport at a news conference Tuesday, citing health concerns.

The 31-year-old Augusta native said symptoms from Arnold-Chiari malformation have returned. She already came back from surgery to correct the problem in 2011, but now it’s time to call it a career.

“At the end of the (2015-16) season, I started having reoccurring symptoms that I knew fairly quickly were related to Arnold-Chiari,” she said. “Throughout the spring, I met with my team of doctors and really came to the conclusion that it’s in my best interest toward the life I want for myself long-term to hang up my sled and walk away from the sport of luge at this time.”

In 2010, Clukey was diagnosed with Arnold-Chiari, a brain disorder involving structural defects that can cause severe head and neck pain, balance problems, muscle weakness and numbness, among other symptoms. She underwent brain surgery in 2011 to attempt to limit the pain in her neck and skull.

Clukey returned to competition and won the national luge title in 2012 and two silver medals in World Cup competition. She later missed qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics by 0.013 seconds, but put off retirement in hopes of qualifying for the 2018 Olympics. Last November, she fell one spot short of qualifying for the U.S. World Cup team.

Last February, the symptoms resurfaced. Clukey consulted extensively with Dr. Eugene Byrne, team doctor for USA Luge, as well as a neurosurgeon to see if she could continue pursuing her goal to return to Olympic competition.

“It was obvious the pain has escalated beyond a healthy tolerance,” Byrne said in a news release. “As part of this decision, we factored in the dedication and intensity of the way Julia trains and competes. Julia always wants to give 110 percent. However, she understands that the pain isn’t going to go away and, that at this point, aggravating it more could cause future health concerns.

Cheryl Clukey, Julia’s mother, said her daughter contemplated what her future would hold without an Olympic dream being the focal point.

“It was the right thing,” Cheryl Clukey said. “I’ve been worried about her for the last season because I knew she was having symptoms from her neck. There’s a time for everything to end, and 19 years is a long time.”

Cheryl helped Julia get started in luge at the age of 12 by taking her to a luge recruiting event in Portland. The promise of a free T-shirt lured the tall, athletic pre-teen as much as the prospect of gliding down a hill on Spring Street in Portland on a luge sled with wheels.

“We just went as a lark,” Cheryl Clukey said. “The next time, she said ‘I want to go back.’ It was really hot. They took her and they invited her to come to (USA Luge headquarters in Lake Placid) New York. I think they took her because she was very athletic, could take direction on a sled and had a good attitude.”

“The only stumbling block was when they wanted to take her to Europe (to compete in junior level international races). But we worked it out. She knew better than I did. She said, “Mom, it will be OK,'” Cheryl added.

It was more than OK. Under the tutelage of coach Miro Zayonc, Clukey became a junior world gold medalist.

“She was very hardworking and very eager to do well. And she had very fast starts from the beginning,” said Zayonc, who first saw Clukey when she was 14. “She was motivated. She would always train a little bit harder. She would do anything she could to do well, to prepare.”

Junior competition prepared her to take on the world’s best lugers. In 2006, she finished fourth at U.S. Nationals. In 2007, she placed eighth in her first World Cup event in Ingls, Austria. By 2008, she was one of the top 12 female lugers in the world.

In 2010, Clukey overcame a neck injury to finish 13th in the World Cup standings and qualify for the Olympics. She finished 17th in her lone Olympic appearance in Vancouver.

Last week, she told Zayonc her dream of a second Olympics was over.

“I was a little surprised. I thought she would be able to hang on until the Olympics,” he said. “But she knows her body. I didn’t know how bad the pain was. She would never stop if she could continue.”

“It’s a little sad her sledding is over, but she’ll be a part of the luge community, I think,” he added. “It’s been a great pleasure to work with her. She’s a very committed athlete. She’s very willing to do what it takes. We’re going to miss her on the team.”

Clukey said she will still be involved in the sport through her role on USA Luge’s board of directors and continue supporting the team through next Olympics.

“We’ve talked about coaching opportunities here and there but for now I want to stay in the state of Maine,” she said.

Her mother doesn’t believe Clukey will ever leave luge completely.

“When she talks about luge, the timbre of her voice changes,” she said. “You can hear the love she has for the sport.”

Clukey said her retirement plans include continuing as spokesman for the Maine Beer and Wine Distributors Association as well as expanding her “Julia Inspires” campaign. She plans to spend more time talking to students around the state and continue with Julia Clukey’s Camp for Girls on Maranacook Lake.

Clukey earned her degree in electrical engineering from DeVry Institute in 2015 and currently works at WEX in Portland as a recruiter.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I am certainly going to be here and looking ahead and I’m excited about the opportunities that will come,” she said.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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