Life as an Olympic athlete isn’t easy. It’s demanding, and it doesn’t get easier once the competitive days are over.

That’s where Julia Clukey comes in.

The Augusta native and former Olympic luger in May became the director of athlete services, outreach and engagement at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee — formerly the United States Olympic Committee, until June 20 — where she works with future, current and past Olympians to ensure that they’re set up for success away from the playing fields.

I’m most excited about just being able to try to to improve things for our athletes,” Clukey said. “I think sport has evolved so much and professionalized so much from where we were even 10 years ago, and it’s really important that our athletes have the resources to evolve along with it and professionalize along with it.”

The position is a new one, and was started by USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland. Since taking over in August, Clukey said, Hirshland has steered the committee toward making sure athletes are taken care of away from their training and competition.

It’s trying to shift the culture a little bit,” said Clukey, who competed in the Winter Olympics in 2010, “and making sure we’re seeing athletes as human beings, and supporting them both in the sports realm and the life realm.”

With Clukey’s job, that means everything from making sure athletes are doing everything they can to make a team, to seeing that they have access to any help necessary for their mental health, to ensuring that they gain the education and career skills necessary for their professional lives once their competitive days are over.

Training for the Olympics is an all-encompassing commitment, and athletes are often so driven that they don’t address the areas of their lives away from their sport. Clukey’s office helps provide a support system many end up needing.

“You have to start those conversations early on, you can’t just start it when someone’s wrapping up their career,” Clukey said. “Of course you have your big-name athletes that do really well, but a lot of athletes struggle financially and to make ends meet year after year.”

Clukey, who retired from competition in 2016 and then held positions on the board of USA Luge and the Athletes’ Advisory Council for Team USA, was impressed by Hirshland’s commitment to providing off-the-field services for prospective and current Olympic athletes, and applied once she heard of the opening.

I was really excited about where they were going,” Clukey said. “That was really what was most exciting for me, the ability to really try to be a part of this culture change that we’re in and just make things better for the next generation of athletes.”

Clukey got the job — though Hirshland and chief of sport performance Rick Adams told her that a recently-implemented job would have unclear responsibilities at first.

It was a pretty blank slate,” she said. “(They) were pretty transparent with me that I was definitely walking into some ambiguity, but that’s exciting to me.”

Clukey said part of her interest in the job stemmed from seeing for herself during 19 years of competition how important it was to have a plan for the rest of life.

I feel like I was very fortunate, I was able to start to build the other areas of my life before I retired,” she said. “This will end at some time. And you don’t want them to retire and have day one be the first time they’ve thought about what might come next.”

Clukey said she also likes the chance to use both her leadership history and her own experiences as a passionate, driven athlete — and one who dealt with disappointment of her own when she missed making the Olympic team in 2014 — to relate to the people who come to her for help.

I made an Olympic team, (then) I didn’t make an Olympic team, so I knew what riding the highs and lows of sports can feel like,” she said. “I really channel my own experience, and I think that helps me talk to athletes now with a level of respect for them, knowing that I went through it too. I’m not just talking at them, I’m talking with them.”

She has a point to get across. The road to the Olympics is hard, and so is the road back. And she’s there to help.

“It’s the right thing to do at the end of the day,” she said. “We still want to win a medal, we want to win a lot of medals, but we also want our athletes to win off the field of play as well.”


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