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Original Issue

The Accidental Sailor

Julia Trotman is prone to mishaps on land, but she's a winner on the water

Welcome to my Yacht," Julia Trotman said with a smile as she pulled off a green tarpaulin and unveiled what looked more like a bathtub than a racing craft. Most of the 2,000 boats docked in the harbor at Marblehead, Mass., on this late June afternoon bore names such as Rolls Royce and Fortitude. Trotman's sailboat didn't have a moniker, but it did have a mission. On the back of her boat, scrawled in black marker, was the pledge BARCELONA OR BUST!

This is what you're going to sail in the Olympics? she was asked by a visitor, who pointed to the 11-foot-long, 98-pound dinghy that Trotman had uncovered. This little boat can possibly handle the roiling, flotsam-filled waters off Barcelona? Visions of the Minnow lost at sea came to mind. But rest assured that Trotman is no Gilligan at the helm. She climbed into her boat, cast off, raised the 76-square-foot sail and weaved her way through the tightly packed lanes of moored yachts, deftly dodging a boat here and a boat there.

At various points during her 24 years, Trotman's life has seemed like an obstacle course itself—a frightening car crash here, a minor pratfall there. But her indefatigable will carried her through—all the way to Barcelona, where she was the U.S. Olympic yachting team's entry in the Europe dinghy class. Last month Trotman won one race and finished second in another to breeze home with an Olympic bronze medal. If it hadn't been for two premature starts, she would easily have won the gold.

"I didn't anticipate a medal," Trotman said following the final Olympic race in her typically self-effacing manner. "This was a nice surprise."

A surprise? An American earning a medal in the Europe class was more like a mutiny with a bounty. Though the Europe dinghy has been raced overseas for 25 years, its popularity never crossed the Atlantic. In fact, until recently no manufacturer in the U.S. had even built the boat. But in 1988, the year before Trotman graduated from Harvard, the Europe class was selected as the women's single-handed event for the Olympics. The U.S. Sailing Association, scrambling to make up for nearly three lost decades, bought six used dinghies and went looking for sailors to handle them. Trotman, a three-time All-America in sailing, qualified for a boat but turned it down because she had just started a job in New York City as an editorial assistant at American Heritage magazine. But the chance to be an Olympian was tough to pass up. In June 1990 she bought a Europe dinghy of her own, quit her job and embarked upon what she calls the life of a nomad.

For the next two years Trotman lived out of a duffel bag. With her Euro dinghy strapped surfboard-style to the roof of her car, she traveled across the U.S. to various regattas, putting 35,000 miles on the odometer. She also racked up a lot of frequent-flier miles, because the best competition in the Europe dinghy was, naturally, in Europe. Though Trotman's wanderings took her to 12 countries, it was hardly a European vacation. Just try checking a 16½-foot mast on an airplane. Trotman also raised about $25,000 from sponsors and grants to finance her Olympic campaign.

The life of an athlete training for the Olympic yachting team is a far cry from the old-money image of the sport of yachting. "Most sailors buy vans, throw a microwave and refrigerator in the back and travel to events," says Mark Lammens, Trotman's personal coach. "Yachting. That's the worst word ever," says Trotman, "I hope they change it. It has this terrible aura."

Going into the Olympic trials last April, Trotman tried not to dream of Barcelona. "Only one person got to go, so I didn't want to imagine what it would be like, because I didn't want it to be a huge letdown," she says. At one point during the 11-day, 10-race trials, held off Newport Beach, Calif., Lammens caught Trotman filling out an application for a summer journalism program at Harvard. "She wanted to have a backup plan, just in case," he says.

Trotman was not favored to win the trials, and after she finished eighth in the first race, few thought she would be a contender. But others knew better than to count her out, including her father, Stanley, who says Julia possesses an innate "stick-to-itiveness." Trotman went on to win three races and finish second four times, and after the ninth race was so far ahead she was able to sit out the final one. "I did well because I'm able to sail in a whole variety of conditions," Trotman said afterward. "When you're out there sailing for two hours, it helps to visualize things. When it is windy I hike really hard and imagine myself with legs of steel that would help me hang off the boat forever. In light wind, I think about the words patience, smooth and calm."

Trotman learned about perseverance at an early age. She remembers a rainy afternoon when she was four, riding in the backseat of her mother's beige Oldsmobile station wagon and feeding her year-old brother, Nick, pieces of a bologna-and-cheese sandwich. "I don't remember much more than that. My next memory is of the fireman who yanked me out of the car," she says. "And then the ambulance."

Susie Trotman was driving her two children from the family's home in New York City to her mother's house in Huntington, Long Island, when they came upon a tractor trailer that had jackknifed across the Long Island Expressway. While Susie was able to stop her car in time, the cement truck behind her kept going. "It hit us from behind like a croquet ball, and we went under the tractor trailer and about 30 yards out onto the other side," Susie recalls. "The friction set the car on fire."

In the few terrifying minutes before their rescue, Susie shielded her children from the flames with her hands. An off-duty fireman pulled Julia out of the blazing car, and Susie threw Nick out one of the back windows. Julia suffered lacerations, a broken left leg and a badly burned right hand. Nick had only minor burns. Susie lost most of her fingers. The two children were hospitalized for a few weeks, but Susie spent four months in the hospital and had 25 operations on her hands. "They may not look like much, but they can do everything," she says. "When they did all those operations on me I told my doctor that I wanted selective skills—hands for tennis and golf, but not for doing the dishes or the laundry," she says, jokingly. Relearning even small tasks took years of patience and a lot of help from her family. "Julia had unusual responsibilities as a child," Susie says. "Not every six-year-old gets ready by herself for school and then has to tie her mother's shoelaces. But she was always a directed child, a focused child, even then."

It has been 20 years since the accident. Susie plays tennis and golf with specially designed rackets and clubs. She can no longer sail as she did before the car crash, so on family boating trips she acts as skipper, bellowing orders to Stanley, an investment banker; Nick, a junior at Tufts and a top college sailor; and Julia. Last October, Susie became the chairman of the training committee for the U.S. Sailing Association.

The family's love of the water was passed on from one generation to the next, from Susie's father to Susie, and then to Julia and Nick. When she was nine, Julia raced in her first regatta in the gentle waters of Cold Spring Harbor, which spill into Long Island Sound. She flirted with other sports, including swimming and tennis, and in high school played field hockey and ice hockey, but she continued to compete in local regattas. At Harvard, in addition to sailing, she was captain of the ice hockey team that won the Ivy League championship three years in a row.

Still, misadventures seemed to follow her. One day during the fall of her freshman year at Harvard, Trotman was riding a bicycle she had borrowed from her mother when her foot slipped on a pedal, and she fell off. She wound up with a stress fracture in her right ankle. Later that winter, in the first ice hockey game of the season, a Yale defenseman pummeled the rookie rightwinger in the corner and fell on Trotman's right leg, shattering the tibia. "The doctor said that it looked like I had been hit by a Mack truck," she says. "My leg had a 30 to 40 percent chance of totally healing."

Then, the week after she qualified for the Olympics, Trotman's parents planned a big party in her honor. Hours before the bash, Trotman borrowed her father's bicycle ("You know, one of those vintage 1960s eight-speeders," she says) to ride to the gym. A car making a right turn cut her off and she smashed into the car's rear fender and crashed to the pavement. "I got back up and started riding home," she says. "It didn't hurt that much. I was just so angry that the driver had done this."

Two hours later Trotman was in the hospital. She had fractured her left shoulder and damaged her rotator cuff. Two hours after that, she was at her party, slumped in a chair with her arm in a sling, being comforted by 120 family members and friends and an ample dose of codeine.

Six weeks later Trotman resumed sailing, and six weeks after that, she was sailing her Europe dinghy in the Mediterranean off Barcelona, where she found smooth sailing at last.

"There's a theme here, I guess," she says with a laugh. "I only seem to hurt myself when I'm on land. I should just stay on water."



In Barcelona, Trotman sailed to a bronze in the Europe dinghy class.



Susie and Stanley were firm supporters to their daughter in Barcelona. Julia (below, right) and brother Nick became old salts at an early age.



[See caption above.]