February 25, 2010

Friends get together for Clukey


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Staff photo by Andy Molloy GOING FOR GOLD: Julia Clukey greets friends and supporters Saturday during a reception for the Augusta resident who is competing on the U.S. Olympic luge team.

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The meeting hall at Unitarian Universalist Community Church on Winthrop Street wasn't built to accommodate Olympic-sized crowds, but it had one Saturday as well-wishers and media squeezed together to recognize United States luge team member Julia Clukey.

Clukey heads back to Europe today and will be on the track Monday in preparation for four World Cup luge races leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. Clukey, 24, was named to the U.S. team on Dec. 13.

''It's really amazing to look out and see so many people I've known for so long,'' Clukey said. ''It's a lot of people from my childhood who have supported me through the years and e-mailed me when I've been gone. It's just great to have everyone together.''

Clukey's Olympic quest began at age 11 when she attended a roller-luge clinic in Portland and much of it has taken place in isolated venues when she's trained and competed in relative obscurity. Her dedication to a sport which few have ever watched did not escape speakers in attendance who included her mother Cheryl, Gov. John Baldacci and Cony High School Athletic Director Paul Vachon.

Cheryl Clukey recalled her own athletic aspirations and how she grew up just as women's sports were gaining recognition. Her athletic career predated the 1972 Title IX law, which opened up new avenues for female athletes.

''They stood on the shoulders of those who came before them,'' she said of subsequent female athletes.

Flanked by Julia and her sisters Olivia and Amelia, Cheryl Clukey teared up while speaking of her daughter's career.

''She has worked mostly alone,'' Cheryl said. ''Initially when they took her to Europe at a young age I did not want them to take her because I didn't want her to have surrogate parents. But Julia has always been more mature than I am. She said, 'Mom, it's going to be OK.' ''

Her mother also recalled how Julia missed making the World Cup team ''by something like four hundredths of a second,'' four or five years ago then asked her coaches if she could travel to Europe at her own expense just to continue to train.

''It was the first time she was ever left behind,'' Cheryl said. ''Instead of feeling sorry for herself she said, 'I can't not be on the track for a year. I'll pay my own way, I'll find the money. I need to go and stay in the background and just get on the track.' ''

Vachon, who coached Cony girls' basketball teams to seven Class A state titles before retiring two years ago, has known Julia since middle school. Her older sister, Amelia, played for one of Vachon's teams but by the time Julia reached high school she was already immersed in another winter sport.

''She was on our first civil rights team at Hodgkins Middle School,'' Vachon said. ''If she had played basketball, we probably would have won two more state championships. That's really the kind of athlete she is.''

Baldacci has known the family for a while and recalled how they lost their husband and father Robert a few years ago to a heart attack.

''Knowing Cheryl and what she's been through and the family's been through for them to be sticking together the way they are, I'm proud of the family,'' Baldacci said. ''It's just a good message, especially during the holiday season.''

Others were on hand as fans of Augusta's first Olympian. Amelia, who is two years older than Julia, teaches sixth-grade social studies and reading at Hall-Dale Middle School.

''My class had been following her right along,'' Amelia said. ''We have a whole bulletin board and they asked me every day, 'Did she make it yet?' ''

Although U.S. Luge pays Clukey's room and board during World Cup and Olympic competition, she still shoulders many of the expenses involved in training herself. The Clukey family and friends will attend the Games but made no effort to solicit funds Saturday.

''They need it,'' said Rocky Gaslin, proprietor of Rocky's Stove Shoppe in Augusta and one of Julia's sponsors. ''They're kind of shy about asking.''

Those interested in contributing toward Clukey's expenses can do so by contacting Julia at clukeyluge@googlemail.com or by calling Cheryl Clukey at 441-0337.

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