Wednesday, December 11, 2013
READFIELD — "Hi, I'm Julia. What's your name?"
Julia Clukey, a member of the U.S. luge team, is giving back by playing a direct role in a summer camp for girls outside Augusta that bears her name.
Andy Molloy / Kennebec Journal
Young girls had to look up at the tall, smiling blond-haired woman. The heads of some of the day campers just about reached Julia Clukey's waist.
"Having a good summer?"
Clukey didn't break eye contact until she got a response or at least a shy smile in return. "Yeah, I know, school just got out. Bet you couldn't wait."
Clukey has traveled most of the northern hemisphere as a member of the U.S. luge team. She's 27 years old and a Winter Olympian. She's a celebrity in this part of Maine, near to her hometown of Augusta.
But she wasn't acting like one. Earlier in June she helped lug rocks to build a new fire pit. She had a rake in her hands and a broom. She helped design the modest but eye-catching sign at the entrance to the dirt road that leads to the shore of Lake Maranacook: Julie Clukey's Camp for Girls.
"Hi, I'm Julia."
Ninety-four girls, entering grades 4 to 7, signed up through the Kennebec Valley YMCA. Back in February, maybe half that number was expected.
"We would have been ecstatic with 60," said Mark Yerrick, the local YMCA director. "Seventy would have been wonderful. When it got up to 90 we realized we needed a cutoff. It's all because of Julia."
She didn't medal in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Injuries have disrupted her development. She's not glib and it's difficult to find her ego. Her quiet resolve has caught people's attention.
"Hi, I'm Julia."
Last Wednesday was the camp's opening day and Clukey was determined to personally greet each arriving girl. Until a busload of some 30 or more campers arrived.
"I'll probably need another day to remember all their names," said Clukey. "But I will."
Six days later I visited the camp again. She matched faces with names. "Some are calling me Clukey. They're comfortable with me."
The Kennebec Valley YMCA provided the campsite on 23 wooded acres, and a camp director, counselors and support staff. But don't confuse this with some summer sports camps where the celebrity name makes a daily token appearance or two. Clukey's fingerprints are all over this.
She remembers being 8 and 10 and 12 years old, and thinking about what and who she could be. She remembers the searching for self-confidence and self-reliance.
At the 10-day camp, girls swim and kayak and hike. The usual summer camp things. Julia also asked them to start journals. "It's their place where they're able to be honest and open, and talk about their dreams and their goals. It's their secret place but they can share their thoughts if they want."
Clukey has kept a journal for all these years for those reasons.
"We talk about bonding, about being around good people who are good for your heart. We talk how easy it is to get mad. We talk about bullying."
Girls talking to girls.
On the first day I overheard a camper telling Clukey she'd never been in a kayak. You could hear the anxiety in her voice. That's OK, said Clukey. We'll do it together.
Clukey can remember when she was 12 and asked to try the luge for the first time. And later, those who helped her down that first mountain run.
"She's been really phenomenal," said Kerry Welch of Readfield. Her daughters Lily, 11, and Caroline, 10, are campers. "She's such a positive role model and these times especially, that's so hard to find."
The camp ends Saturday after the only sleepover the night before. Clukey smiles. She thinks she'll sleep in on Sunday. Training for the upcoming luge season begins. Her goal is to reach the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
She will feel a certain sadness next week. "The girls have amazed me. They're so open. They're so enthusiastic. I can't wait for next year."
The cynics among us know that some sports camps are for profit. That big sports names can mean big money for someone.
Clukey thought she was doing this for free this summer. The other day she learned she might earn enough to buy, say, a new laptop computer with a couple of bells and whistles. "My payoff? I just wanted to give back."
The other day Emma Plante, 11, saw tears running down her mother's cheeks as they left the camp for their home in Readfield. Signs with sayings usher the campers out. The last one read: What did you learn today?
That provoked Sarah Plante's tears. She had learned that some experiences in life are good. Very good.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org