Above: Julia Clukey, center holding her nephew Lucas, with her friends and family
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - Julia Clukey has been headed in this direction all season, and on Friday at snowy Mount Van Hoevenberg, she came within 0.3 of a second of toppling the world as the 2010 luge Olympian raced to a World Cup silver medal. It was the best result of a career that has overcome physical problems the past two years.
"It’s an amazing feeling," said the 27 year old Augusta, Maine athlete. "I wanted to attack from the start. I know this track in and out. I was focused on position on the sled and knew I could correct my lines. I just wanted to capitalize on my home track advantage and am super-excited I could to that today."
It began with knee surgery ("I don’t even think about that anymore"), but then she was challenged by Arnold-Chiari Syndrome, which required the shaving of eight millimeters of bone from the base of her skull to relieve the symptoms of fatigue, headaches and nausea.
Clukey’s previous bests were fifth place efforts at the 2009 World Championships, on this track, which she matched two years later in a Park City, Utah World Cup meet. She also scored a fifth place result in Koenigsee, Germany.
Her steady rise through the ranks this season was temporarily derailed last weekend in the World Championships at Whistler, British Columbia when a stomach ailment affected her training, and eventually led to a ninth place performance. Clukey took the red-eye back to Maine for some rest and family time before arriving in Lake Placid to prepare for the eighth World Cup of the season.
"World Championships was hugely frustrating for me," she admitted. "I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. I wanted to use that as motivation to push me this week and take advantage of the home track advantage."
The silver medal enabled her to jump into sixth place in the World Cup standings, the best ranking of her career, with one more race remaining on the schedule.
"I spend a lot of time of time preparing during the summer," continued Clukey, as she held her nephew Lucas. "When I’m at the track I clear my head knowing that I’m healthy, and knowing I’m ready for the races makes me confident in my sliding."
In addition, it was arguably the best day of women’s World Cup luge racing for the United States as all four athletes landed in the top 10.
Erin Hamlin, who won the 2009 World Championship the last time an international event was held here four years ago, finished fifth. Kate Hansen, 20, took sixth place. She captured the 2008 World Junior Championship on the same course. Emily Sweeney, 19, the 2013 Junior World Champion, with family in nearby Saranac Lake, N.Y., was ninth.
The performances were also career bests for the latter two lugers.
The doubles competition earlier saw Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall race to a season best sixth place, while Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk, in their first full World Cup season, placed eighth and set a new benchmark for their young careers.
Women’s singles winner Natalie Geisenberger, of Germany, the recently-crowned World Champion, won her fourth straight World Cup race, and fifth consecutive competition overall, including World Championships.
The victory enabled the 2010 Olympic bronze medalist to clinch the World Cup overall title. Her "worst" results of the year have been two World Cup silver medals.
After struggling in training, Geisenberger had the fastest runs of each heat, posting 44.295 and 44.145 seconds, for a total of 1 minute, 28.440 seconds.
Clukey, with the third best times of each run, was timed in 1:28.735, while Canadian Alex Gough took the bronze medal in 1:28.748.
Hamlin, the two-time Olympian from Remsen, N.Y., was the crowd favorite as some 120 fans made the three and a half hour trip from the village north of Utica. She finished just 0.10 from the podium and had the fifth best runs of each heat.
"I was fast in training, although I kind of had some of the same problems today as I did in training," she said. "For how my runs were, I have to be happy with my fifth place. I had some big problems, especially in my second run. I clipped the wall in the chicane, which is not ideal. Usually I’m pretty dialed through there. Hopefully, the next time is better.
"But it is nice racing at home and I’m starting to feel a little bit more comfortable on the sled. Hopefully, I can build on that going into Sochi."
Hamlin said she enjoyed the rare opportunity to compete in front of her flag-waving family and friends.
"It’s definitely not a burden at all," she said. "I love having so many people into the sport. As most people know it’s not exactly the most popular thing in the world. They have a blast and it’s an exciting thing. Sometimes I have this feeling of, ’Man, I wish I was over with them. They’re having a really good time.’
"It brings everyone together and I get to see pretty much all of my relatives, which doesn’t happen very often, since I’m gone so much. It’s really nice to see everybody. They have a good time. It’s a good party."
Hansen’s previous best was an eighth place in Oberhof, Germany last winter, but this was her first appearance in a significant international race in Lake Placid since taking the junior worlds.
"This is a whirlwind of emotions," said Hansen, who recorded 1:29.300. "It was so awesome, having a home field advantage, especially with the Sween Team (Emily Sweeney family) and the Hamlins. It’s been an awesome experience and when you come down the people love you because in Germany there is no love (for us), ever. It’s nice to see the flag waving....to hear your name being chanted. It’s actually an unreal feeling. I’m grateful we could come to Lake Placid and race."
Sweeney has battled uphill much of the season, beginning with a November trip to Sochi that saw her injure an ankle. From there, she dinged up a knee and calf muscle, all while eyeing the coveted World Junior Championship.
The effervescent racer not only achieved that, but added a Junior World Championship bronze medal in the team relay. Her opening heat Friday put her in seventh place, but she gave back two places in the final leg.
"I’m alright with the two runs," said Sweeney, whose time was 1:29.446. "They could always be improved. You could always do better.
"I’ve never raced anyone but my teammates on this track, so it was cool to have all the other countries here. Between Erin and I and our families, everyone was insane and it was cool to see everyone there."
Geisenberger has 770 points; teammate Anke Wischnewski, fourth Friday, is second with 585; another German, Olympic champion Tatyana Huefner, seventh Friday, is third with 461.
Clukey’s sixth place point total is 356, Hamlin is seventh at 327, Sweeney is 20th with 167 in a partial season, and Hansen is 22nd at 161 points.
Another World Cup overall championship was decided when the German doubles team of Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt won their sixth World Cup race in eight starts, and the World Championship. With 727 World Cup points they cannot be caught on the final weekend of the season two weeks from now in Sochi, Russia.
Runs of 44.155 and 44.101 gave them the winning aggregate time of 1:28.256. Austrians Peter Penz and Georg Fischler had the silver medal time of 1:28.387, with Italy’s Christian Oberstolz and Patrick Gruber next in 1:28.557.
Actually it was the U.S. doubles sleds that established the theme of the day: to save your best races for Lake Placid.
Mortensen, of Huntington Station, N.Y. and Griffall, of Salt Lake City, Utah had the second best result of their careers after a fifth in Park City. Their time was 1:28.913.
"The first run was pretty sweet," said Mortensen, the front driver. "They were the best runs we’ve had of all the training. We had a clean exit out of 12. There was no sideways pressure or brush against the wall. We worked a lot more in the second run. It was not as free flowing as the first."
"We’ve had a lot of runs here, being based in Lake Placid," added back driver, Griffall. "On a home track you have higher expectations. But we haven’t been here since October and everybody gets the same amount of runs on the week of a race. So we tried to put two good runs together which we haven’t done all season. This is one of the more difficult doubles tracks. Anything can happen. If you put two good runs together you’re in the running for a medal."
Germans Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, seventh in the race, are second on the season with 598 World Cup points. Penz and Fischler are next at 525.
Mortensen and Griffall are 11th with 265, while Hyrns, of Muskegon, Mich. and Sherk, of Fort Washington, Pa. are 13th with 222.
World Cup racing resumes Saturday at 9:30 AM Eastern Time with men’s singles followed by the team relay, and features live race action on NBC Sports Network.
The men’s second run, Saturday at 11 AM Eastern Time, will air live, as will the team relay, at 1 PM Eastern Time.
Complete doubles results
Complete women’s singles results
Interviews with Emily Sweeney and Kate Hansen
Interview with Erin Hamlin
Interview with Julia Clukey
Interview with Mortensen-Griffall