Julie Barker: life on the edge

March 29, 2023

Julie Barker has recently designed a beautiful healing room in her new home in Nanton. A place to apply her deeply refined crafts of Reiki, Relaxation Massage and Body Wraps.

“I love this room; it just feels so good and so right. It’s taken a few twists and turns to get to this place in my life,” said the 53-year-old, stepping back to present a quick view of her new treatment space.

By this Julie means she has travelled a tumultuous path, but she doesn’t present her story this way … she narrates it as a wildly adventurous ride; a bit of a ‘living on the edge,’ meets ‘diving inward to find answers’ kind of story.

High Velocity Lessons

When Julie was 18, she left her BC farm life behind and moved to Calgary in search of grand adventures.

“I was living with my brother for the first bit while I went to school and he was into speed skating. I had been into athletics my whole life, and he was pushing me to go find a winter sport,” said Julie. “So I made my way to (then called) Canada Olympic Park, and I tried out the natural luge. I was hooked instantly. It was way too much fun – tobogganing at the next level.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Julie became all consumed with the sport of luge, and like all things she set her mind to, she excelled. “I was built to go down the track, and that was all I wanted to do, all the time!” she said.

With two years of avid training, and amid the hype of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Julie became Canadian Junior Women’s Champion, and set her sights on qualifying for the Canadian A Team and going to the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France.

It takes a special kind of person to find joy in a fiercely competitive sport that has you careening down an ice-covered chute, feet first on your back in a 50-pound sled. The fact that Julie describes how she learned to relax her body while reaching speeds of over 100 kilometres an hour with no steering wheel or brakes, implies a fraction of her well-honed grit.

“In luge, when you are going down the track you have to be very relaxed while applying minute pressure with your shoulder blades. These subtle movements are how you steer. It’s counterintuitive to stay relaxed while going at high speed – but this is a must. It’s a huge mental exercise,” she said.

Julie goes on to explain that like many athletes training in high-performance sports, she became adept at visualization. “It’s a way of separating your mind from your body – distancing yourself from pain and danger. This became a skill I have used a lot in my life,” she said.

The C-Word and a Breaking Point

In 1991, after a stint of training in Europe, Julie went to see her doctor about an abnormal pap test.

“The doctor was lovely. She had dealt with lots of athletes and she just gave it to me straight … It looks like cervical cancer. You’re going to need surgery to remove it. You should brace yourself for the possibility that you may not be able to have children.”

Dumbfounded, Julie tried to find context in her world for the words, ‘cancer’ and ‘incompetent cervix’ at the young age of 21. Her coach was supportive and told her to take a few days off and think about things. She called her brother who, by then, had moved away from Calgary, and he immediately got in his truck and came to support her.

The day after her brother arrived, Julie was back on the hill, courting the danger she knew best.

“We were training from the Men’s Tower and I was the last one on the track – just me and the starter at the top. My coach called up to say it was a little windy on the straightaway – he thought maybe they should send a truck up for me but I told him no, I would compensate,” she said. “So down I went and I crashed and broke my ankle.”

Exemplifying the fact that broke athletes don’t have medical benefits, Julie details how her coach and the park staff fashioned a cast out of a cardboard box filled with ice, covered in plastic and duct taped it to her leg. She laughs when she tells the story of being loaded up in her brother’s small truck and being driven to the hospital with her ‘box cast’ hoisted up on the dashboard.

At the hospital she learned that in addition to a bad ankle break, she had torn all the tendons and ligaments in her foot. With cancer surgery imminent, Julie opted for a cast rather than foot surgery, and within 24 hours, she arrived at the Foothills Hospital with her newly-casted leg to have surgery for her cancer. “I had the privilege of being the only patient, up to that point, who had to have their cast duct-taped to the stirrup during surgery.

In the weeks that followed, Julie recovered and made it back to the hill, but her foot injury prevented her from qualifying for the Olympic team, and she lost her spot on the team. Fourteen months later, when she had made a full health recovery and had tenaciously trained to a point of being within range of qualifying … a policy change in her sport rendered her too old to compete in the league.

With her Olympic dreams dashed, Julie struggled to find her new path.

The Next Lane

In the years that followed, Julie leaned into her ability to adapt quickly to change, and did work through a temp agency, while training to become a massage therapist. Back in her native BC and working at IBM on a Help Desk, Julie found her life mate and was married. With love in her corner, and extreme sport behind her, she found herself looking inward for added sustenance. “I was dabbling in mindfulness and Reiki,” she said.

At age 44 Julie miraculously found herself pregnant, and she and her husband welcomed a healthy baby boy. Everything seemed pretty much perfect … until it wasn’t.

When her son, Caelan was just eight months old, doctors found a 9-centimeter cancerous tumour on Julie’s right kidney. Surgery to remove her kidney was successful, and she was sprung from the hospital the day Caelan turned one.

With no need for chemo or radiation, Julie was once again on a healing path, now with Reiki and massage in her tool box.

Qigong and Wellspring

In 2018 Julie was invited to participate in a MATCH study (Mindfulness And Tai Chi for Cancer Health) through the University of Calgary. There, in the Qigong / Tai Chi program, she met Wellspring program leader Munira Jiwa, and was so taken with the practice of Spring Forest Qigong that she went on to train with Munira, got her first three levels in the healing modality and became certified as a Spring Forest Qigong Group Practise Leader.

“I had been suffering with chronic lower back pain as a result of luge days. With Spring Forest Qigong I went from pain – to no pain! And a much more positive mental outlook!” she said.

At the end of the course, Julie learned about Wellspring and lamented about not having discovered this resource sooner. Still, intrigued by what Wellspring offered, she reached out to inquire about providing her services as a Reiki practitioner.

Instead, she was invited to volunteer in the role of Community Connector – helping promote Wellspring and build connections and relationships with those living with cancer in her rural area. “When I considered this role, I thought, sure, I know support programs for dealing with cancer would be most welcome,” she said.

After completing Wellspring’s volunteer training, Julie wholeheartedly embraced the challenge to bring people together and build a cancer support community in her area.

“My hope as a Community Connector is to get programs rolling in Nanton, to get Wellspring established in our town, bring on a couple of people in the community to assist and participate, and then pass the torch on to them. For things to grow you need a constant influx of new fresh perspectives,” she said, adding, “This January we are going to start a Coffee Chat here in town. I will also be working with some local people to do a cancer event on February 4 – World Cancer Day.”

As for life going forward, Julie has had her fill of the ‘fast lane,’ and is quite content in her roles as a mom, wife, Wellspring volunteer, and new member on the Board of Directors for Nanton Quality of Life Foundation. She is also committed to practising self care and extending her life learnings and healing modalities to help others.

“A large component of my experience with athletics and work has revolved around change. How to adapt to and harness opportunities around it with a positive mindset. I see my purpose as helping people to relax and remember what calm and contentment feels like, and I know the benefits of developing a good tool box of strategies that will sustain you when life feels like an arcade game,” she said.

Indeed there will be more straightaways and curves, and with unwavering optimism, Julie carries on.

3 Responses

  1. Inspiring, heartwarming share about what brought Julie to Wellspring who I know as a bright-light, generous and talented volunteer. Thank you!

  2. Congratulations Julie on your strong spirit! I wish I could say as much for myself. My journey has been long 36 years and a new cancer has now popped up. I’m still trying to look to a positive future.

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