How A Career Ends: Olympic bronze medalist Julia Trotman Brady

How A Career Ends is an interview series in which Excelle Sports contributor Rob Trucks asks medal-winning Summer Olympians about the moment they knew their competitive athletic career was over.

In 1992, Julia Trotman won the very first Olympic bronze medal awarded in the Women’s One Person Dinghy sailing event. On the way she earned the titles of Collegiate Women’s Single-handed Champion in both 1989 and 1992, as well as 1992 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year. She also served as captain of the women’s ice hockey team at Harvard in 1989, and has been subsequently named to the Harvard Athletic Hall of Fame and the Andover Athletic Hall of Fame.

For the past twelve years Julia Trotman Brady has worked for the VIA Agency in Portland, Maine. She and her husband Jim, a silver sailing medalist at the Barcelona Games, are the proud parents of two non-sailing daughters, Lila, 16, and Claire, 15.

My grandfather was the one who taught me how to sail.

When I was 4, we were involved in a very bad car accident. My mom was driving us to her parents’ house. We lived in New York City. We were driving out to Long Island to visit them, and a truck hit us from the back, and he hit us really hard. The car caught on fire. My mom, heroically, reached back and covered me and my brother’s faces so the flames wouldn’t affect us, and basically had her hands burned to very little, to protect us. And she went through an arduous recovery of skin grafting and some other repairing of what was left of her hands, and we lived with that set of grandparents for about a year while my mom was recovering.

It did dramatically change my mom’s life. Her hands were burned down to what I would describe as the first knuckle, so she just had stubs for fingers. And these, amazing, amazing physicians gave her a second chance at life by – and this is 45 years ago – grafting skin from her leg onto her hands and arms.Then she went through the painstaking process of relearning everything, from how to write and hold a pen to how to drive.

Her brother is a mechanical engineer and he designed a handle that would fit through her non-moving fingers, down her arm, and become attached to a tennis racket so she could resume her active life. And he did the same thing with a golf club that she could leave strapped to her hand and just screw different golf clubs into. So she took a while to, you know, relearn how to tie her shoes and everything she needed to do, but she lives a full life now and takes no prisoners, and there are very few things that she can’t do.

My mom is such a fighter and I think I learned that from a very young age. And I’m somebody who tells my own daughters to never take No for an answer, and to have the kind of resolve that they admire in their grandmother.

She’s very inspiring, and she has really passed that on to so many people. She just never lets anything get in her way, and never complains. Never have I heard her complain once, that she couldn’t do something or she was frustrated by something. She’s my idol in a lot of ways.

Julia Trotman Brady. (photo courtesy of Brady)
Julia Trotman Brady. (photo courtesy of Brady)

I became very close to those grandparents, and my grandfather was the one who taught me how to sail. And from an early age, 4, 5 years old, used to take us off for adventures on his boat, and really was the one who sort of kindled the flame for my passion for the water and the sea and sailing.

When I became a high schooler I found that it was actually a really fun way to be able to compete against the guys, and win [laughs]. You could go out there as a girl, and if you did things right you could beat the guys, and that was very rewarding. I was the one girl on the ice hockey team with all the boys, and that didn’t turn out to be a very productive venue for competing with the boys. Sailing was the place where I could actually do well.

I raced in college, for my college sailing team. I went to Harvard, so you’re on the Charles River, surrounded by a lot of really good schools and intense competition. Learned a lot. Really increased my skills during those four years. That was 1985 to ’89.

1988, while I was a junior in college, was the Seoul Olympics in Korea, and it was the first year there was a women’s sailing event. And our team went and our women won the gold medal. And I had raced against these two, Allison Jolly and Lynne Jewell previously, and I’d beaten them on occasion, so I thought, Maybe I actually have a shot at this.

I graduated in 1989 and I spent a year working in New York at Forbes magazine because I had a plan. It was a two-year Olympic training and campaigning plan to win the Trials, from ’90 to ’92. I also knew that I wanted to have a career, so I purposely spent that year after college jumping into the job environment, because I wanted to make sure I had a start there, and something to go back to.

My grandfather was very much what’s called a Corinthian. He believed sailing was really a hobby. It was something you did as an amateur for fun. And I remember going to him in the spring of 1990 and saying, Grandpa, I’m getting ready to quit my job to do an Olympic campaign. What do you think? And he was not in favor, at all, because of his belief that, Well, you have a job! Why are you going to quit that job? And, Sailing is what you do on the weekends, for fun, on the side.

He was battling, at the time, bone marrow cancer, which was a really tough, tough disease. And he actually passed away that summer of 1990, so he never saw that I went on to win the Trials and win the bronze medal in the ’92 Olympics. And I think about that, because I defied his advice. I quit my job and moved ahead with this goal and dream of trying to make an Olympic team, and make that medal podium. And my grandmother, who’s still alive, who’s 94, reassures me that, He knows. And that, you know, the sentiment of how he would’ve felt after he’d seen it all play out would’ve been different from what he said in 1990.

Julia Trotman Brady. (photo courtesy of Brady)
Julia Trotman Brady. (photo courtesy of Brady)

I went to the 1988 Olympic Trials as a participant, but my sole objective was to interview and glean as much knowledge as I could from the top participants, to understand what they’d done for their campaign, to get to this point, how they’d put it together, what they’d emphasize, what they’d do differently. So based on that I crafted this two-year concentrated campaign effort I was going to do from ’90 to ’92. I had a coach in mind. I had the cadence of my training. I had the understanding of which boat and equipment and sail and mast I was going to buy, because those things really matter as well.

In 1988 the first women’s class was added to the Olympics, and it was a two-person boat. And then for the ’92 Games they announced there would be a new boat. They added a single-person boat, and that’s what I had done more growing up, a one-person boat. I had to do a lot of homework since it was brand-new for the Olympics. We didn’t even have the boats in the United States at that point. They were only in Europe and Australia and other parts of the world. So I did a lot of legwork to figure out my program, and I came to Grandpa and it was pretty devastating. It was deflating. You know, I wasn’t asking him for anything. I had to raise about 50, 60 thousand dollars. I obviously wasn’t asking him for that. I was really just asking for his blessing, and his confidence. And while he said he knew I could do it, he said he didn’t think it was the right decision.

I was about 22 at the time, and I had to go back and think really hard about whether this was the right decision, whether I was making the right choices in my life at this point, having just left college and just had my first job, and thinking through what I wanted to do moving forward. But I had enough conviction in the plan, and my ability to pull it off, that I took his advice in stride, and while I was certainly set back in my mind, I went to my parents, obviously, right after that, and I said, What do you guys think? You know me as well. You know this plan as well.

My mom is very involved at the national level in the sport of sailing, so she knew the territory. She knew what was at stake. She knew what was required to qualify for the Olympics. She knew all of that. And she knew my grandfather [laughs], her father. And she said, You know, it’s very rare that I think Grandpa’s wrong, but this is one case where I think he’s wrong. So it was the timing of it that was so tough, because then, as I said, he did pass away. But I gathered my resolve and I moved forward, obviously, because I had enough reassurance from other sources.

Julia Trotman Brady. (photo courtesy of Brady)
Julia Trotman Brady. (photo courtesy of Brady)

In a one-person boat it’s much more physical. What you have to do is lean out over the side and keep the boat upright to be at its full speed potential. You have to use your arms and your upper body to work the sail, and you have to use your full body to sort of work the boat through the waves, again for maximum speed. It helps to be tall and lean, because you have to be good in light air, light winds, and heavy air, heavy winds. And the lighter the wind the lighter you want to be, and then the heavier the wind the more you want to have that strength or weight to lean out and lever over the side to keep the boat upright. So the ideal is that you are tall and strong and lean, so that you’re good in all conditions.

We were lucky in ’92. Sailing obviously has to be at a large body of water, and for many Olympic venues that’s far away from the central venues, so Savannah to Atlanta, or Pusan to Seoul. In Barcelona the Olympic Village was on the water, so we lived in the dorms there, and the marina was part of the Olympic Village and we would just jump out of our dorms and wander down to the marina. We were able to eat in the dining hall and participate in all the opening and closing ceremonies, and run around and watch all the other sports.

I was willing to take those two years out and do what I had to do to get to the Olympics. In sailing it’s sometimes harder to win your Trials, because there’s only a first place. There is no silver or bronze. Only one person gets to go out of the Trials, so it’s do or die. The Olympic Trials is a 14-day 12-race marathon, so that they get a mix of conditions, and pick the best sailor across all that. Nobody gets lucky, and in a lot of ways that was more pressure than the Olympics.

I felt pretty confident that I could have a very good shot at winning our Trials. There was a girl who had been ranked number one on the national team for four years running, and nobody had beaten her. And I finally beat her with about three months to go before the Trials in April. And that rattled her and that gave me the confidence that I could do it in April, but once I made it to the Olympics I considered myself an underdog.

The best I had placed internationally at an event leading up to that, over the course of those two years, was fifth. The Americans were brand new to this class of boat. We’d never had them until a few years before, and the Europeans and others had been racing them for decades. They’d developed their sail technology for decades. What worked in my favor was that I had trained my butt off, and I really emphasized physical training, as well as some sport psychology, so I wasn’t too deterred by the fact that I was an underdog. In fact, I was invigorated by it. And then secondly, the Olympic venue supplied the boats for this class. The class was called the Europe dinghy, hence the European experience, and so for the Europe dinghy and the windsurfers and one other boat they supplied the equipment to everybody. All of a sudden it was a much more level playing field, and equipment was less of a differentiator, and it was more your sailing skill.

I never like to look back with any regret, but I should’ve won the gold. It was mine for the taking.  The Olympics is a seven-race series and you can drop one. You drop your worst score. One race per day for seven days, and you drop your worst score.

So I came out of the gates . . . I won the first race. Holy shit! I’d never won an international event before. I’d obviously just won my Trials, but I was a bit taken aback. I didn’t fully appreciate how fast I was on the race course with this leveling of the field. And what I didn’t do was dial back my aggressive stance as the underdog. I pressed pretty hard at the starting line.

The start is an imaginary line between a buoy and a boat. And both of those things are bobbing around in the water and the waves, and the start is a five minute countdown and then a gun at the go. And if any boats are over early, if they cross that imaginary line before the gun with any part of them or their person, then you have to circle back and restart or else you’re disqualified. And you don’t know if you’re over, or if you’re called or not.

What the race committee does is they toot a horn right after the starting gun that just says, Somebody was over. But you don’t know who it is, and you don’t know if it was you. And so in the third race, I was called over. I didn’t think that I was over, but it’s very hard to, you know, get any sort of evidence that would say otherwise. So I was disqualified from that race. The way it works is when you get to the first mark they’re holding up a white board with your sail number on it if you’re over early. So that was just dumb, honestly. That was probably too risky a strategy to have had.

The worst part, though, is that I did that again. Later on in the series, I did that again. And despite that, carrying a disqualification into my scores, I still managed to get a medal [laughs]. Frankly had I reworked my strategy a little more smartly, I should’ve won. And you never want to be shoulda coulda, and I’m so thrilled to have a bronze medal – it was more than I ever expected – but I kind of blew it [laughs].

I won the bronze, I came home, and I sold every bit of equipment I had.

Julia Trotman Brady with her family. (photo courtesy of Brady)
Julia Trotman Brady with her family. (photo courtesy of Brady)

I had achieved my goal. And just economically, because I’m a businesswoman, I knew that there was maximum value for my equipment at that moment in time [laughs]. And I had other life goals. It was a little bit of a nag that I had a bronze and not a gold, and I thought for just a nanosecond, Should I go at this for another quadrennium, and really go after what I think I could do? And I said, Nope. I have achieved what I wanted to achieve. I went to the Olympics. I got a medal, I got a husband, and I want to go do other things that are going to expand my world.

We had met briefly in January of that year. There are a number of Olympic training events, regattas, that feature all ten classes of boats, so there are lots of people there. I had met him briefly at that point, and then when you win your Trials, there are now, instead of ten classes and a hundred teams of people there, there’s now just ten. There’s one per class and you go off to Europe in April, May, June to go to these training events that are set up for people getting ready. And so we found ourselves off in Germany and the Netherlands and Spain and other parts of Europe, racing in these warm-up events as part of the American team.

Another special aspect of the Olympics for sailors is that we were allowed to show up two weeks early, ahead of the other athletes, and move into the Olympic Village to start training in these new, supplied boats. And so we all arrive at the Village and have the run of the place [laughs]. And, you know, you’d go out for dinner at night on Las Ramblas, and the group seemed to dwindle from ten people to four people to just me and Jim looking at each other [laughs].

In some ways, you might say, Well, gosh, that is a distraction, but in other ways Jim was going through the same exact pressure cooker, need to focus, you know, set of distractions and constraints and pressures that I was. And he hadn’t been to an Olympics before, but he’d been to an Olympic Trials. He’s five years older than I am, and he is, I will say it, a better sailor than I am.

I’ve never said that, in twenty-six years [laughs].

He was a great partner and advisor to have, because I wasn’t allowed to bring my coach with me. There were only a certain number of passes granted to folks outside of the sailors, and I couldn’t get one for my coach, so I didn’t have my coach there. In some ways Jim played the role of coach a little bit for me, which was great, and then I realized that he was more than a coach.

There’s a fun picture that’s probably online somewhere of me on Jim’s shoulders at the closing ceremonies. I’m waving an American flag, and that was sort of the real start of our dating life.

I do miss just doing something at that competitive a level, I’ll be honest. I am a very competitive person. I’ve learned to moderate that a little bit in my life, just so everything isn’t to the max, but I do miss that sense of being so driven around a single purpose.

It was the idea that you were just the best that you could be at something, and then you close the book on it. And I think that was really what it was for me. But I will say, in the same breath, that I could never live anywhere that’s not near the ocean, because there is just something so fundamental and expansive and powerful, and beautiful and compelling and peaceful, all at the same time, about the ocean that speaks to me in a way that I think comes from all that time that I’ve spent on it. I’ll never do something crazy like sail around the world, but I will always have the ocean as a big part of my life.

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