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Olympian: Brain disorder made me stronger

By Julia Clukey, Special to CNN
updated 4:29 PM EST, Tue January 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julia Clukey was diagnosed with Arnold-Chiari malformation
  • She underwent successful surgery in 2011
  • Clukey refused to let the disorder define or limit her

Editor's note: In The Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week we meet Julia Clukey, who made the 2010 U.S. Olympic team in luge and is the first alternate for the 2014 team in Sochi. Off the ice, she's faced many challenges, including surviving brain surgery.

(CNN) -- When I was first diagnosed with Arnold-Chiari malformation -- a brain disorder involving structural defects -- I was shocked.

After learning more about it, and then after successful surgery in 2011, I realized that I could emerge a stronger person, both mentally and physically.

Today I am able to continue to compete at the highest level in the sport of luge and continue to live life to the fullest. I remain committed to my sport as well as to sharing my story about overcoming challenges.

During my surgery, and in times of adversity, the most important thing for me has been the support of my awesome family and friends.

I had a new outlook on the sport when I returned to competition in 2012. While I knew my ACM was never going to be gone completely, I was healthier than I had ever been and ready to see what I could do as an athlete, free of my symptoms.

I never wanted to use my ACM as an excuse not to do something, and I am thankful to my medical team for encouraging and supporting me to continue my athletic endeavors.

In my first season back, I had my best results ever. I won my first national title, scored eight top-10 finishes in the World Cup -- including my first-ever silver medal in front of a home crowd in Lake Placid, New York. I also achieved a personal best, placing sixth in the overall World Cup rankings.

I refuse to let my ACM define or limit me as a person. From the very first day I was diagnosed, I decided that I was going to recover from this and I set to work making a plan on how I was going to do it.

In addition to recovering physically, I am extremely proud of the work I have done in my home state of Maine by reaching out to youth on an emotional level, educating them about my personal challenges and encouraging them to go after their dreams.

Since 2010, I've been the spokeswoman for the Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association.

During the past four years, I've been reaching out to Maine high school students. My presentations are 20 minutes long, and include a video and my personal story of overcoming challenges, including my neck surgery and the passing of my father and sister, as well as the athletic challenges I have faced in my life. I also share with them the importance of individual responsibility and good decision-making.

As part of my work with the MBWDA, I have been to 34 high schools in Maine and reached more than 9,000 students. My goal is to reach as many as 10,000 students in the next few months, and perhaps develop the MBWDA responsibility initiative into a national model.

Some of the most rewarding experiences of my life have come from my work to inspire young people. This is one of the biggest reasons that I am proud to host Julia Clukey's Camp for Girls each summer.

The camp is designed for young girls ages 8 to 11 as a place to develop self-confidence and a healthy lifestyle. I have been blessed with the opportunity to share my experiences with young girls and give them the strength and confidence to go after their dreams.

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