March 8, 2011

Olympian Clukey set for surgery

By Gary Hawkins ghawkins@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Augusta Olympian and World Cup luger Julia Clukey will put her career on hold for three months, beginning this week.

Clukey cut short her World Cup competition last month after a congenital condition known as Arnold-Chiari Syndrome interfered with her sliding.

"Right before Christmas I started having some bad headaches," Clukey said. "The last month of the season it declined pretty quickly."

Clukey will undergo surgery Friday in Los Angles to address her problem. Arnold-Chiari Syndrome is a defect in the bottom portion of the brain which can limit blood flow to the spinal column.

"I was born with it," Clukey said. "The bottom of my skull sits too low so it blocks the fluid from leaving. Mine has been exacerbated because of sliding."

Clukey didn't known she had Arnold-Chiari Syndrome until she described her symptoms to Dr. Robert Bray at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. A renowned neurosurgeon who operates on Olympic athletes, Bray confirmed his diagnosis and how Clukey should deal with it.

"I have a mentality that surgery is the last option," Clukey said. "It was definitely better this fall and through the summer."

Clukey said she made the decision to have surgery about a week ago after conferring with her coaches. Bray, who operates on Olympic athletes for free, plans to take away about eight milimeters of Clukey's skull so blood can flow freely to her spinal column.

Clukey will recuperate a couple of weeks in Los Angeles at her own expense before returning home to rest for about six weeks.

"You can't do anything," she said. "It will be three months until I can be in the gym and start building strength."

Clukey, who turns 26 next month, expects to begin training again by June and be ready for the World Cup season late next fall. She competed in eight races this season, including the World Championships, before calling it quits and missing the final World Cup race and the U.S. Nationals.

She placed fifth in a World Cup race early in the season in Utah which automatically qualified her the World Championships in Italy where she placed 12th.

"I would have liked to be a little higher," she said. "It's not a track I've had a lot of experience on."

Clukey finished 17th overall at the Vancouver Games. Her training was limited after she sustained a neck injury lifting weights. The injury lingered but was not related to her problems this season, she said.

"I think it's going to be really good once I get through the operation," Clukey said. "It's been a long time since I haven't been dealing with my health.This should take care of a lot of that."

As she did last year, Clukey plans to address central Maine high school students later this spring about the consequences of underage drinking and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Gary Hawkins -- 621-5638

ghawkins@centralmaine.com

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