WHISTLER, B.C. - Julia Clukey said it felt good to be back on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, good to be back on her sled on the eve of the luge world championships.
"It's nice to be back in North America, work with the sled, get comfortable," Clukey said Thursday as the U.S. luge team finished the final day of training before Friday's competition. "It's my first time back since the (2010 Vancouver Olympic) Games, so I'm grateful to have the extra runs. It's going to be really close racing, finding times in the runs, trying to maximize everything.
"I feel really good this year. I trained hard all summer to get ready for this season."
Clukey is one of 10 athletes on the U.S. team, which also includes Chris Mazdzer and World Cup rookie Taylor Morris in men's singles. Erin Hamlin and Emily Sweeney, who just won the 2013 junior world title, and 2008 world junior champion Kate Hansen will slide women's singles — the first worlds for both Sweeney and Hansen. The teams of Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall, and World Cup rookies Jake Hyrns and Andrew Sherk will compete in doubles.
Four of the sliders will be selected by USA Luge officials to compete in the team relay. Doubles and men's singles are Friday, followed the next day by the women's race and the team relay on the Olympic track at Whistler.
Clukey, a 27-year-old native of Augusta, Maine, finished a solid seventh at the last World Cup event in Winterberg, Germany, on Jan. 20, an important step forward after nearly two years of uncertainty about her health.
Nearly two years ago, doctors shaved 2 millimeters off the base of Clukey's skull to help relieve headaches and chronic bouts of fatigue caused by Arnold Chiari Syndrome, a congenital disorder that affects the base of the skull. The condition can also lead to dizziness, muscle weakness, ringing in the ears and even paralysis.
"My head was a big issue," Clukey said. "I had a transition of trying to feel well. The whole process took 14 months. You don't want anything to go slowly. That was the hardest part for me — the waiting for my body to respond. It was definitely difficult to sit on the sidelines. Now, where I am, one of the top sliders, it was worth it."
Among the women, Natalie Geisenberger, a five-time winner this year in World Cup, leads the powerhouse German team. Geisenberger, who won silver in 2008, 2009 and 2011 and took the bronze last year at worlds, will be after her first gold medal in the competition.
"This is my winter," Geisenberger said. "I've become mentally stronger."
Teammate and Olympic champion Tatjana Huefner, a four-time world champion, figures to offer some of the stiffest competition for Geisenberger, but the American women are up for the challenge.
"Our team has been strong the last five or six years," said Hamlin, of Remsen, N.Y., who stunned the luge world with her gold-medal performance at the Lake Placid worlds in 2009. "(The Germans) have a really strong foundation and they have a lot of numbers. Being able to race on your home track every week makes a difference. We have quite a ways to go, but I think we're closing the gap."
Olympic champion and current World Cup leader Felix Loch of Germany is the man to beat in singles. He holds the track record on the former Olympic layout, though it has been altered since the Winter Games.
At least Loch won't have to worry about Italy's Armin Zoeggeler, who has a record six gold medals at worlds. The two-time Olympic champion will not compete in Canada.
"I'm not in a fit state of health, especially with regard to my back problems," Zoeggeler said.
In doubles, Tobias Wendl and partner Tobias Arlt of Germany will look to continue their dominance this year. They've won five of seven World Cup events in this pre-Olympic season. Andreas and Wolfgang Linger of Austria, two-time Olympic champions and the overall World Cup winners last year, may be peaking at the right time. They have just one victory in World Cup this season, but that came at Winterberg, the last event ahead of worlds.
Germany also has won all four team relay events this season on the World Cup tour, and the event will be part of the Sochi Olympics next year.