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."