Julie Swail (Ertel) seems to do things in pairs: competes in two Olympic Games, excels in two different sports, and then gives birth to twins. Only a true athlete could tackle all that, and Julie does it like a champ. She was the captain of the 2000 USA Women’s Olympic Water Polo team and took home the Silver medal in Sydney. Eight years later, she was once again competing in the Summer Olympics, but this time in Bejing and in the sport of triathlon. Today, at the age of 38, Julie’s life as a mom is similar to a triathlon in terms of endurance training and numerous transitions…only now it involves diaper changing, intermittent feedings and naps, and chasing after two active 19-month-old toddlers named Catherine and Jackson.
Julie’s usual morning begins at 5:30 am when she does a quick workout before going to her job as Aquatics Director at JSerra Catholic High School. It dawns on me, as I’m sitting across from Julie in her kitchen at 9 am on a Saturday, that she’s probably already been up for a few hours. She’s energetic and looks great, her kids are fed and dressed, and her husband is about to head off for a serious bike ride. I’m suddenly motivated to go to the gym.
Like the typical busy mom, Julie’s life is full and ever-changing. After work, she looks forward to spending as much time as she can with her family at home; they are her first priority, after all. But, she’s managed to find a type of balance in life where she can juggle training for races, pursuing her career, and spending time with her family. It’s inspiring. A few nights a week, you’ll find her coaching the high school girls’ water polo team. They’re blessed to have her. With a Master’s degree in Physical Education from Azusa Pacific University and experience as a former coach of Women’s Water Polo at University of California at Irvine, Julie brings know-how and an insatiable passion to the sport. In 2000, Woman’s Water Polo was included in the Olympics for the first time, and Julie had the amazing opportunity to fulfill one of her dreams. She’s now responsible for helping the next generation of athletes realize their own.
Julie compares her athletic adventures to those of motherhood.
“You just have to rally, even when you feel you can’t do it,” Julie says. She knows from firsthand experience. When she was only 21 weeks pregnant, she was put on complete bed rest. In one week she transitioned from an active athlete to a bedridden expectant mother. She soon discovered, however, that life as a competitive athlete had given her an unusual supply of optimism, which continued even after the twins were born 9 weeks early. She prepared and she prayed. Motherhood would be her new event, and she’d be sure to mentally and physically train for it.
“The first year of motherhood is about perseverance and also functioning on sleep deprivation and extreme fatigue. There’s a lot of rewarding times and it’s so much fun, but you just have to remember that there’s often no rest for the weary. Things won’t always go as planned so you have to adjust your thinking and keep going.”
She explains that participating in triathlons is probably the best preparation for having babies.
“It’s about constantly rotating activities and making smooth transitions. You change their diapers and clothes. You walk them. You feed them. There’s moving from one activity to the next. With two toddlers, those activities can be as simple (yet adventurous!) as going upstairs, then going downstairs, then going outside, then getting in the car, etc. You have to keep up.”
At the present moment, Jackson is chasing a giggling Catherine around the kitchen counter. You can tell that Julie is reveling in the moment. I ask her if she’s always wanted to be a mom.
“I definitely knew I wanted to have kids, but I realized it would have to be after the Olympics and traveling everywhere. My husband and I also knew we wanted to have two kids. Of course, we didn’t expect for them to come at the same time, but we were really excited. It seemed to fit with what I’m about: just get it all done at once.” She laughs.
Although Julie is still competing– a few triathlons and running races each year — her main focus is her kids.
“It’s funny because this week I’ve ridden my bike once, and it was just to the grocery store and back, which is nothing compared to the 150 miles I used to ride every week when I was training full-time.”
But somehow she manages to make it all work. It’s then when I find out she’ll be up early again the next day: it’ll be her second triathlon this year.
Jackson and Catherine seem to have the same stamina as their mom. Julie proudly shares that her children have already participated in a race: The 50-yard Diaper Dash. I make her repeat that race title again; it’s just too cute. Watching her little Catherine sprint from one toy to the next, I’m sure her kids performed well.
“We’ve already found a toddler triathlon race for next year,” Julie says, and you can literally see her excitement. “They love riding with us on the bike and always try to get on other kids’ tricycles. They adore being in the water. And, I’m not sure if you noticed, but Catherine doesn’t walk; she runs everywhere…with her brother chasing after her for a hug.”
Athleticism definitely runs in her family. Her husband, Greg, by the way, is still on his bike ride. They initially met in 2001 through cycling. Eventually they joined other cycling groups and lost touch until in 2005 they, both now single, started riding together as Julie prepped for hilly races. Their friendship blossomed into romance, and in 2007 they married. Julie credits Greg to helping her find that balance between personal time and family time.
“He’s been fantastic in terms of supporting me and whatever I want to do, especially when I told him I was getting that competitive itch again.”
They occasionally train together and try to promote a healthy, active lifestyle for their kids. If you live in their area, you might see them riding side by side on the bikes, with a child in a carrier on each.
If Julie had to describe raising kids in one word, it would be “fun.” She enjoys that her twins’ personalities are so different from each other; Jackson seeks out affection and attention while Catherine, Julie’s mini-me, craves schedules and new discoveries.
For a minute our conversation switches to more educational topics, such as the all-important Baby Einstein movies and Usborne children books. Julie is multi-tasking now, talking to me while feeding her daughter and trying to direct her son who is walking around aimlessly. We compare the really cool snacks available to kids nowadays. The topic switches to nifty feeding chairs and the importance of nap scheduling. (People: These are the types of informative talks you’ll eventually experience if you surround yourself with a bunch of young moms.)
Julie has big plans for the next year. She’ll concentrate on building her water polo team and aquatics center as well as keeping up with her training for the occasional race. If you plan to watch the 2012 Olympic Games, look for her as a commentator for NBC in London. In her ever-evolving, fast-paced world of motherhood, Julie will continue to face her biggest challenge of finding that most optimal balance in life and making sure that she and her husband always make their children feel loved and encouraged.
Ask her what she’s learned about herself as a mom, and Julie would tell you that she doesn’t have it (raising kids) together as much as she thought she would. However, as I watch her lovingly cuddle Jackson to her chest while trying to appease a frustrated Catherine, I sense she has it a lot more together than she thinks.
The interview concludes with my hypothetical: “When your children are grown and they’re asked to describe their mom in one sentence, what would be the perfect sentence?”
She smiles. “That I’m a fun mom who is very involved in their life, that I’m a good listener, that I was firm in discipline but loving in spirit, that I allowed them to explore new experiences on their own, that I have unconditional love for them, and that I love God and we raised them in a God-centered family.”
Her sentence is passionate, determined and ambitious…which describes Julie Swail (both as an athlete and a mother) to a tee. Her silver Olympic medal is somewhere in her upstairs desk drawer, while her children’s toys are prominently displayed. It’s reminiscent of her new life’s passion: family.
Photo Credit: Cori Linder 2011
Advice to Moms: If you’re a mom who considers herself “unathletic” but wants to take up a sport to get in shape post pregnancy, Julie would advise you to consider triathlons. They’re diverse in the activities and distances, and they bring all different levels of athletes — novice and professional — together in a fun healthy environment. If you want to try out a triathlon, visit http://www.trifind.com/. There are events for people of all ages and levels.
About the Writer: Cori Linder is a professional editor who helps people write books — from idea to print. Contact her at email@example.com. View her other articles and interviews at /blogs/clinder