Recovered from surgery, Clukey is a changed slider
Julia Clukey has one of the fastest starts in all of women’s luge.
With spikes on the tips of her fingers, Clukey drives forward, throwing her arms against the ice for three to five powerful strokes.
Clukey relied on that upper-body strength to qualify for the 2010 Olympics, but after undergoing surgery on her skull in 2011 to treat a syndrome that was sapping her of her energy, Clukey needed to find her inner strength before trying to return to the sport.
And now, despite missing a year of competition, the 28-year-old Clukey is coming off of her best-ever season and is poised to compete for a medal in Sochi.
“There were definitely moments early on [after my surgery] that I felt like I was never going to be an athlete again,” Clukey said. “Even when I started training in the gym I felt like my body was fighting every little movement that my body was doing.”
What had started as numbness in her right hand in the summer of 2009 worsened for Clukey as the 2010 Winter Olympics approached. Having been fifth at the 2009 World Championships, Clukey was expected to be a medal contender in Vancouver. That didn’t happen, though, as fatigue and severe headaches hampered her ability to compete. She finished in 17th place, and the headaches continued to become more debilitating.
It turned out that Clukey was suffering from a congenital brain malformation called Arnold-Chiari Syndrome. She underwent surgery in March 2011, as eight millimeters of the bottom of her skull were shaved off to alleviate space for her brain.
Her recovery was slow. After five months, Clukey was able to ride an exercise bicycle. Two months later, she began to return to the gym. By January 2012, almost a year after her surgery, she finally started to feel confident about returning.
“January was really the first time that I felt like, ‘OK, you’re going to get through this,’” Clukey said.
But to return to being a world-class luger, the Augusta, Maine, native would have to change her approach to the luge.
A self-described “work horse,” Clukey could no longer push her body to the maximum like she used to. Some days, thanks to occasional headaches, she could hardly work out at all.
Embedded owg_slideshow: The U.S. women's luge team Sochi hopefuls
Clukey had always been a very strong starter, but her sliding would have to improve.
Never an especially graceful slider, Clukey changed her routine to place an emphasis on becoming more balanced.
“I do slacklining to get me in that out-of-balance state that gets me in a better rhythm for once I get back on the sled,” Clukey said.
“[Some sliders don’t] have the soft feeling –- when you’re going in and out of curves, trying to be as soft and smooth as possible to make those speed gains,” USA Luge coach Mark Grimmette explained. “When you don’t have that feeling, it’s very hard to teach it. But Julia made some great gains in that area. She made that leap that a lot of people can’t make.”
The proof is there. Having focused on finesse, Clukey won her first-ever U.S. title in October 2012, kicking off a season during which she finished a career-best sixth in the World Cup and earned her first-ever World Cup medal (silver at Lake Placid).
“It was a good way to come back from that and make a statement for myself and show everyone -– particularly those who [had questioned my disorder] –- that I was back and healthy,” she said.
Starting Nov. 16 in Lillehammer, Norway, Clukey now has five World Cup races to prove that she belongs on the U.S.’s 2014 Sochi team. From there, she hopes to make it on the Olympic podium by exhibiting her new-found sense of grace on the sled.
She certainly doesn’t need to prove her strength.
Embedded video_content_type: How to conquer the Sochi luge track