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 16�-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."