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Julie Swail Ertel Returns to Olympics in New Sport


Julie Swail Ertel was still a toddler when she started swimming. Growing up in warm and sunny California, it is no surprise that she got started in the pool at an early age. As VOA's Steve Schy reports, Julie turned her love of swimming into her ticket to the Olympics.

Julie Swail Ertel says she has always loved the water. She told VOA Sports about her early start in the sport.

"Started competitive swimming when I was six, and my Mom said that at about a year and a half I was able to swim across the pool," said Julie Swail Ertel. "So [I] always loved the water, I loved bath-time and that was definitely my element."

Julie Swail Ertel's talent showed in high school where she spent all four years on the swim team. But as a junior, Julie took her swimming skills in a different direction - she joined the boys water polo team.

"It was interesting, yes," she said. "We did not have a girls team and the coach was very equitable and he said if you work just as hard as the guys and earn a spot on the team then you can play."

Julie continued with water polo in college, playing four years as an All-American on the women's team at the University of California San Diego and winning two national championships. She joined the U.S. women's water polo team in 1993 and made her first Olympic appearance in 2000, as the U.S. won the silver medal at the Sydney Games.

After leaving water polo behind in 2001, Julie was looking for a new challenge. The team chiropractor suggested she try triathlon, a combination of swimming (1,500 meters), cycling (40 kilometers) and running (10 kilometers).

"I was looking to fill six to seven hours of my day that I would not be spending training and he said triathletes train more than anyone he knows," said Ertel. "So I thought that sounded like fun, and 3.5 weeks after I came back I went and did my first triathlon with the promise of an ice cream cone at the end, and I realized this is a fun sport."

It was more than just fun. Julie Swail Ertel was good enough to turn pro in 2003 and was an alternate at the 2004 Athens Games. She talks about making the transition from water polo to triathlon.

"Cycling is very similar to egg-beater [the name for a water polo drill], which is how we tread water," she said. "The muscle groups are the same, just learning how to clip in and clip out of my pedals was probably the toughest thing about cycling. The running I started from scratch. I had never done any land sports in my life."

But Julie says running is now her favorite part of the triathlon.

"Running I absolutely love," she said. "Not only because it is very close to the finish line, but just the feeling that it gives me. It is a very free feeling and a very strong feeling. You get to take in so much more of the scenery because you do not have to worry about what you are riding over with your bike."

2007 was her breakout year, winning the USA Triathlon Elite Nationals and bringing home the gold medal at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. After winning the Olympic Trials in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in April, Julie is on her way to Beijing, and she has visualized her perfect race.

"My race would go like this," said Julie Swail Ertel. "I would come out of the water - rested - because I swam on somebody's feet [right behind another competitor]. But [cycling] in a nice strong group with good cyclists and we were able to pull away from the second pack. And then, starting on the run, just building through the six miles [10 kilometers]. Building up speed with the final kick in the last mile."

Julie Swail Ertel's goal in Bejing is to win her second Olympic medal, as she competes in her second Olympic sport.

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