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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

2008 Olympics: Triton Triathlete

By Kelli Anderson


The sky over the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA, is thick with wildfire smoke and ambient smog, flattening the light to a diffuse glare. But as she eats lunch in the center’s cafeteria on a June afternoon, Olympic triathlete Julie (Swail) Ertel sees a silver lining in the pall: this air is perfect conditioning for Beijing’s infamous pollution.

Honestly, I think having grown up in Southern California could be an advantage for me in Beijing,” says Ertel, who took a leave from her job teaching physical education at Orange Coast College to train for Beijing. “I’m used to this.”
The 35-year-old Ertel has at least one other advantage going into the 2008 Games. While she isn’t favored to make the podium in China, she has already won one Olympic medal as a dark horse. In 2000, she was captain of the U.S. Women’s water polo team that surprised the world first by qualifying for the Olympics .and then by winning the silver medal in Sydney, losing the gold to host Australia in the final seconds after a controversial call.

“ When you come back from the Olympics with a medal you feel invincible,” says Ertel, a four-time All-American water polo player at UCSD, who led the Tritons to two national titles before she graduated with a degree in Economics in 1995. “I felt I could do anything . . . skydive, archery . . . if someone said, ‘You want to play badminton?’ I’d have said, ‘Bring it on!’”

So when a team chiropractor suggested that triathlon would be a great way to eat up the time water polo training had filled, Ertel thought, “That sounds like fun!” In her first triathlon, at Catalina a month after the Sydney Games, she finished first in her age group and second overall despite riding the cycling leg on a borrowed bike and in running shoes. But she didn’t decide to focus on the sport until the following summer, when she got cut from the national water polo team. She had a lot to learn about her new sport, especially the running. The upper-leg muscles she developed from years of doing eggbeaters (treading water) in the pool carried over to the bike, but her lower leg muscles were relatively undeveloped. “I couldn’t even balance on one leg for ten seconds,” she says.

Aside from running a few 5K runs here and there and a little cross-training jogging, Ertel had spent virtually her entire athletic career in the water. Before she started playing on the boys’ water polo team as a freshman at Valencia High in Placentia, she had been a swimmer on the Fullerton Aquatic Sports Team. She credits her former teammate, future four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans, for the little land-based exercise she got as a kid. The two carpooled together, and Ertel killed time waiting for Evans to finish her longer workouts by doing handsprings and cartwheels on a nearby grassy hill. “That was about it for land sports for me,” she says.

When she started training for triathlons, Ertel had to build up running mileage slowly. Her first year, she ran about 15 miles a week. She still doesn’t train much by endurance-running standards; maybe 35 miles a week during peak training. But she says the run is now her favorite part. “It’s so new,” she says, “and I’ve improved so much.” Ertel, who former National Triathlon coach Cliff English calls “very inquisitive, in a good way,” relishes her occasional meetings with running technique coach Bobby McGee. He has taught her, among other things, to keep her chest leaning forward, her chin down, and her arms bent and close to her body as she runs. “It’s fascinating,” she says. “Most people just run and try to run faster, but there’s so much more to it.”

Just two years after that first triathlon in Catalina, Ertel won the over all age-group title at the World Championships in Cancun. At that point she decided to turn pro, a designation that allows her to compete for prize money and race in Olympic qualifying events. (“It doesn’t mean you can make a living at it,” she says, laughing.) In 2004, she claimed the second alternate spot on the Olympic Team. In Tuscaloosa in April, she won the Olympic Trials to earn a spot on the 2008 team.

“ Julie’s number one strength is that she is a racer,” says Sue Davis, who serves as a coach/advisor for Ertel. “Before a race, she is laughing and joking, but when the race starts, she is a fierce competitor. She trains hard, but she competes way beyond what she does in training.”

An extrovert who hates training by herself, Ertel has collected a vast and varied group of training partners. Her 20-25 hours of training a week include a weekly track workout with a few friends; 75 minutes in the pool with a masters’ group on Mondays and Wednes­days (as well as another session solo, or with her husband, Greg); a group run once a week plus a “brick” (a bike-and-run) once a week; weekly rides with a girlfriend and with Greg, and group rides two times a week. “In the community where we live, people ride $5,000 to $10,000 bikes, they have their little outfits, and their bikes match their helmets and shoes,” says Davis, who rides in the group. “Then there’s Julie. Her bike has pink handlebar tape and a pink saddlebag, and she wears a pink jacket. It freaks out the traditional cyclist guys because she’s a girl, she’s in pink, and she’s blowing past them.”

Ertel admits she is “very competitive,” but that’s not her only motivation to win. “God has given me this gift, and to not do anything with it would be a shame,” she says. “Imagine an artist who never picked up a paintbrush and decided he wanted to go into the financial sector. We all have talents, and this is one of mine, and I need to capitalize on it and see how far I can take it.”

In Beijing, it took her into the top 20 of world-class women triathletes. She finished 19th in a field of 55. But she doesn’t see herself training another four years to make it to London in 2012 in triathlon—or a third sport. She wants to start a family and, she says, “I haven’t seen another sport that has caught my interest.”

That could change of course.

Kelli Anderson is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.