Olympian encourages LRMS students to dream big
By Wayne E. Rivet
Julia Clukey knows it takes courage to set big goals and big dreams.
When she was in middle school, she discovered her dream.
“When I first told people I was going to do the sport of luge — before everyone had a cell phone or computer at home — I had to explain to people I was going to wear a tight spandex suit and go really fast on ice on a sled. I got a lot of funny looks,” she told Lake Region Middle School students and staff members early Friday morning inside the school’s gym. “When I told people I was going to make the Olympics, not everyone believed in me. That’s going to happen. It’s okay. Just find the people that do. Allow them to support you…There is nothing you can’t go out and achieve.”
Through hard work and determination, the girl from Augusta, Maine realized her dream in 2010 by qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team and finished 17th.
Today, Julia is a former Olympian, but she hopes to light a spark in young teens to take advantage of opportunities, to set big goals, meet adversity head on and live their life with purpose.
Julia started her 27-minute program with a question many seem to pose to her, “Why would a girl from Augusta, Maine get involved in a sport like that?”
“It’s kind of a funny story. When I was in middle school, I read in the paper that the U.S. Luge Team was coming to Portland to host a tryout. Part of the advertisement said I would get a free t-shirt after the day,” she said.
So, Julia went to the tryout.
“I immediately fell in love with the sport,” she said.
She made a trip to New York, and one her very first run, she had butterflies inside.
“I knew right away I had found something very special,” she said.
Middle school, she pointed out, is a time in a young person’s life that offers many opportunities to try all kinds of things.
“Any time you have a chance to try something new, I encourage you to always say, ‘Yes,’ because you never know what activities are going to give you those exciting butterflies inside your stomach. It is very important for you to find those things for yourself. When you really love what you are doing, it is easier to make decisions for yourself,” she said. “Not every opportunity has a free t-shirt attached to it. There are easy opportunities to take, but usually opportunities are wrapped in layers and layers of hard work. So, we don’t see them as opportunities right away. Those are usually the opportunities that have the most meaning in your life.”
Practice, she said, is an opportunity to get better at something.
“Any time someone asks you to work harder at something, you should always take that opportunity. If those people believe that you can be better, you should see how far you can push yourself,” Julia said. “Luge, it’s not enough to love what you are doing, you have to work really, really hard to get good at the sport. I started in 1997. I made the Olympic team in 2010. It took me 13 years of training and working hard to reach that big goal I had for myself to make it to the Olympics.”
When Julia was five years into her luge career, she started the season on the junior tour, and a spot opened up on the World Cup team.
“I knew I wanted to get from the junior to senior level, but wasn’t quite sure how to get there. So, I sat down with my coach and shared that idea with him. We sat down and made a list of all the things that I needed to improve upon so that I would be ready to go from juniors to seniors. Turns out, the list was long,” she recalled. “I went home that night, and read through the list and opened a notebook and started to write a training plan for myself so I could cross off as many things from the list as possible over the next four months of training.”
Julia asked LRMS students how many of them have a planner at school, or supposed to (have one)?
“At the end of the four months, I had written proof of everything I had done. All the hard work I had done to prepare for that moment.
National championships, I didn’t win the fourth spot I had hoped for, but I had won the second spot, beating out two veteran athletes,” she said. “It was an important moment in my career for two reasons. First, it taught me that hard work is the one thing you own yourself, no one can ever take it away from you. If you work hard for something, you will always see results from that work. You might not see it right away or you might not see it in a timeline you set for yourself, but if you keep working hard, the results always follow.”
She continued, “The second thing it taught me was that I was always having to be the person that was going to dream that big dream. You have teachers and parents and friends who want big things for you, but you guys sitting here today have to decide how hard you will work for something and how big your dreams are going to be. You’re not too young to start having those big dreams. I was your age, in middle school, when I set my sights on making it the Olympics in the luge. So when you go home tonight, start thinking about those things that matter to you and start setting those big goals.”
The ride to the Olympics wasn’t always smooth.
“Things in my luge career were not always perfect. I had some good results, but I also had some challenging times. When you work hard, you are going to face adversity and challenging times. It’s important to have goals in place to get through those,” Julia said.
Adversity can pop up in two ways — overnight, when things change in your life quickly and those situations one creates.
“I had multiple times when injuries took me away from the sport. It can be difficult. After the 2010 Olympics — it was the highlight of my career — I started having a lot of headaches. When I went to the doctors, I found out that I was going to have to take a year off from the sport to get better. It was really difficult,” Julia said. “When you work so hard, it is hard to make sense why something like that happens. You get a little angry, a little sad. I decided to do what the doctor told me. Do what my coach told me. I hoped to get a little better every day until eventually I could get back to sliding, what I loved.”
Julia returned to luge, and had the best season ever.
“I had my first ever World Cup medal. I won my first national championship title. I ended up being ranked sixth in the world. I realized that going through that challenge gave me the opportunity to work on things that I needed to and realize you can’t take anything for granted,” she said. “If you care about something and want to be the best, you have to work hard every day, even when you are tired and not feeling that well. (You) still give everything you have. If you work hard, you can get through anything, and you might be better than before that challenging situation happened.”
Some adversity can arise due to bad decisions.
“Mistakes happen. I’ve made them. I’ll make more of them. It’s important to remember that one moment doesn’t have to be defining moment for you. You can take responsibility for a decision and make it better,” she said.
Julia feels her biggest failure came in 2014.
“I was looking forward to return to the 2014 Olympics, but missed out making the team by 13,000th of a second. To give you an idea of how small of a margin that is, hold your index finger up in front of you, and look at just the white top of your nail. That’s what kept me from going back to the Olympics over the course of two miles of racing. At the end of four years of training and giving everything I had, I literally missed it by a fingernail. That happens sometimes,” she said. “You’re going to set goals for yourself, you’re going to work really hard, and sometimes you’re going to come up a little short. When that happens, it is important to remember that no single moment defines you. You can always pick yourself back up and set new goals. Keep pushing yourself forward.”
Courage is one of Julia’s favorite words.
“It can have a really big meaning, like we can think about firefighters running into a burning building,” she said. “The courage I want to share with you is that inner voice you have that is telling you to do the right thing at the right time. We all have that voice. When you see a student not being treated fairly, you can use your voice to stand up for what is right.”
It takes courage to try new things.
“You’re not going to be good at everything, it’s an uncomfortable feeling, but it is important to have the courage to keep trying new things so you can discover what you are passionate about,” Julia said. “When you find yourself in challenging times, that’s when courage becomes most important. You have to push on. You have to have courage to admit mistakes and take responsibility. You need to have courage to get back on the track to where you want to be.”
At the conclusion of her talk, Julia held a brief Q & A session with students.
- When you are bobsledding, is it as scary as it looks?
Julia. Luge (a couple of chuckles). It’s a sport that isn’t for everyone. When you start, you start low down on the track and work your way up. I was always very confident in my skills. Not all of my runs were perfect. I was never scared to go.
- What was your fastest speed?
Julia. 91 mph. Pretty fast. You have to be very focused down the run. I get car sick and always thought I might get that feeling sliding, but it never happened.
- Have you ever crashed?
Julia. I have crashed, quite a bit. When I first started, I feel like I crashed once a day. How many of you remember learning how to ride a bike? How many of you fell of while you were learning? It is pretty similar to that, so when I was learning how to ride that sled, I fell off a lot. As I got better, as I learned from my mistakes, I didn’t fall off as much. I had years that I didn’t fall off at all.
Julia noted that education was always important to her, especially since both of her parents were principals. In 2016, Julia completed her final courses at DeVry Univeristy to earn a degree in electrical engineering.
“It was always important to me what my life was going to be after luge,” she said.