AUGUSTA — What’s in a blink?
For Julia Clukey, four years of sweat, hard work and hopes.
Clukey missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic women’s luge team by less time than it takes the average human to blink. Needing a fifth-place finish or better to qualify in a World Cup event on Dec. 13, she finished sixth by 0.013 seconds.
Now back at her home in Augusta, she is basking in the support of her friends and family as she tries to make sense of what happened to her Olympic hopes and ponders her future at the age of 28.
She had entered the season as America’s top-ranked women’s luger coming off her best season ever, when she was ranked sixth in the world and had two second-place finishes on the World Cup circuit. She was regarded as one of Maine’s best hopes for an Olympic berth, along with Seth Wescott, the two-time defending gold medalist in snowboardcross.
It’s hard enough to miss representing your country and state in the Olympics. That she missed out by what her sister Amelia called “an unmeasurable amount of time’’ makes it even more difficult to comprehend.
“I think I’m still working through the process a little bit,’’ she said Thursday during an interview at the Kennebec Valley YMCA. “I know I gave everything I had. I put everything on the line. I went for it. I had great starts. I had great runs.”
The disappointment is still evident in Clukey’s eyes and in her measured answers when she talks about the race and the results. But, she said, she has no regrets.
“At the end of the day, I knew what I had to do going into the season and I just had a couple of missed opportunities where I didn’t string things together,’’ she said. “And that’s the way our sport is.
“It’s like I tell the high school students in my presentations, you’re going to face adversity and challenges throughout life. And I certainly have faced other challenges and come out a stronger person. I know as time goes on I will learn the lessons I need to learn from this and come out a stronger person.’’
Clukey, who finished 17th in the luge in the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, doesn’t know if she will compete long enough to make another run at the Olympics in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It’s way too soon for her to even think that far ahead.
For now, she’s eager to continue to reach out with her community service work. Clukey, in association with the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association, visits high schools throughout the state in what is called the Responsibility Tour, presenting a message of making good decisions, eating healthy and chasing your dreams. She also heads the Julia Clukey Camp for Girls, a 10-day summer camp on Maranacook Lake in Readfield for girls ages 8 to12.
“I’ll still continue to slide and train,’’ she said. “I’m looking forward to focusing energy on my community outreach programs. I will focus a big part of my energy into those endeavors.’’
Her message to the students and girls who attend her camp may be a bit more personal this year.
“She’s got perspective,’’ said her sister Amelia, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Hall-Dale Middle School in Farmingdale, just outside Augusta. “We’ve had family tragedies, with our father dying and our sister dying. This is not anywhere near the level of those. And she has that perspective.
“As she moves into the spring, that will lend itself to her message of overcoming failure and that you are in control of what you do and how you handle your situations. This could turn into a good thing for her once she processes it.’’
COMING UP SHORT
Coming into the season, everyone knew only three women would make the U.S. women’s luge team. Clukey was considered a favorite.
But the season didn’t start well. She finished 19th in the first race in Norway, then 12th on a track in Austria where she had fared better in the past. That was followed by a 13th-place finish.
The tour returned to Vancouver and she finished 10th, still leaving her on the edge of the U.S. team. Clukey went into the race at Park City, Utah, on Dec. 13 knowing she needed a top-five finish to make the team.
After her first run, she was in eighth place. After her second run, in which she went 80 mph, she was in first place (1:28.003) with seven sleds remaining.
“Sitting and waiting, watching the sleds come down,’’ she said, when asked what was going through her mind. “I knew I had a great run and I knew I had done everything I could to put myself in the best position possible to get a top-five finish. It was nerve-wracking, watching sled after sled come down and be just ahead of me, just behind me.
“And then, once the final sled came down and, knowing it was short and then knowing I was 13 thousandths of a second too short, I needed some time to myself.’’
Clukey had 15 friends and family members cheering her on at Park City. Her sister knew immediately Julia’s quest was over.
“I could tell by her facial expressions, her body language,’’ said Amelia. “Sisters have a bond, you know. I could tell she was disappointed beyond description.’’
A couple of hours later, Clukey met with her family and, said Amelia, “we all cried together.’’
Mark Grimmette, the program director of U.S. Luge, said the sport can be unforgiving.
“Sometimes it’s tough,’’ he said. “Sometimes other people are just faster. That’s what makes it so tough. We’ve had a couple of other Olympic cycles where other people have missed the team by a hundredth of a second.’’
In a sport that measures its time down to the thousandth of a second, Grimmette said you can’t think about that.
“You can drive yourself crazy thinking about those small increments of time,’’ said Gimmette, a five-time U.S. Olympian and two-time medalist. “The thing is to not focus on the times, but the things you can do to make yourself better.
“I know Julia can be very proud of what she’s done and how hard she’s worked in this sport.’’
LUGE IS WHAT SHE DOES
Nick Alberding, the president of the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association, drove to Boston in last weekend’s snowstorm to pick up Clukey at Logan Airport. He has become a close friend to her these last three years and he was “stunned and heartbroken’’ at the results.
But, he said, “The thing about Julia is that she is not one-dimensional. Luge doesn’t define Julia. Luge is what she does. She’s one of the most balanced athletes I know, with her camp and with her participation in the community.’’
When the two were discussing the results of not only the last race, but the one in Vancouver in which she finished 10th by 0.052 (when a ninth-place finish would have possibly given her an Olympic berth), he told her to use this as an opportunity to do good.
“We all come up short in life, in a lot of things,’’ he said. “To see someone at her level, in essence, fail to accomplish something and react in a classy, graceful way is really appealing to people. She can work with this. I’m convinced this is part of a long story.’’
She will watch the Olympics.
“Team USA runs through my blood,’’ said Clukey, who is eight classes shy of earning a degree in electrical engineering through DeVry University. “It’s a very special competition and I will do anything I can to support my team.’’
And she will lean on her own support team, including her mother, Cheryl, sister Amelia and 5-year-old nephew, Lucas, who took some of the sting out of her setback when he told her that she “shouldn’t be upset because I went as fast as a rocket.’’
“I have an amazing support system here,’’ she said. “I’m very thankful for all the people that have supported me over the years. And I think that speaks a little bit to everything I’ve done the past three years as far as reaching out to the community, reaching out to the schools. That’s the biggest thing I want to be known for, giving back to the community, giving back to the kids, encouraging them to go after their own dreams.’’
And will she chase her own dream of a second Olympics appearance?
“I love sliding and the sport of luge,’’ she said. “And I’ve been fortunate to have spent the last 15 years doing something I love. But really it’s just one day at a time now. When the day comes to make that decision, I’ll be ready to make it and I’ll know strongly one way or another.’’
Her sister, who knows her best, seems to think we haven’t seen the last of her on the track.
“In 2006, when she didn’t make the team, it took a while for her to get over it,’’ said Amelia Clukey. “I think this time it will be relatively soon. I don’t think it will take her a year.
“She’ll be ready to go. She’ll still train and be ready to go next year. This will be motivation for her if she wants to continue.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: