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UC San Diego Student and Alum Go for Olympic Gold the Second Time Around

July 16, 2008

By Christine Clark

UC San Diego alum Julie Swail Ertel and UC San Diego senior Carrie Johnson will both compete in their second Olympic games this August when they go to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

Photo of Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson
Click here to read the UC San Diego Olympic Kayaker blog on Carrie Johnson.

Julie Swail Ertel is a triathlete who has already won an Olympic silver medal, but for a completely different sport. Swail Ertel started out as a water polo player and was a part of the 2000 Women’s Olympic Team, but in Beijing she will join the triathlon team.

Carrie Johnson, 24, is a senior at UC San Diego who is competing as a flat water kayaker.  Johnson, who grew up in Clairemont, started out as a gymnast, but gave up after she broke her arm 11 years ago. However, she didn’t want to stop playing sports, so she entered San Diego’s Junior Lifeguard program where she discovered a passion for kayaking.

“I fell in love with paddling,” she said. “It is just a completely different sport. It is not a judged sport; it is just about who gets to the finish line the fastest.”

Johnson transitioned quickly into becoming an elite kayaker, but in 2003, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation of the digestive tract. She had a major flare-up and had to sit out the 2003 world championships.

“Being forced to take time off the water really made me realize how much I wanted to be on the water,” she said. “It gave me a new outlook on why I wanted to paddle.”

She started taking medications and her condition stabilized and at age 20 she was the youngest member of the 2004 Olympic Kayaking Team. “I wasn’t expected to be on the team,” she said. “It was a surprise to a lot of people and to myself. It was an amazing experience. It is like the ultimate test for an athlete.”

She added that she didn’t expect to become a two-time Olympian by age 24. “As a gymnast, going to the Olympics was a dream,” she said. “As a kayaker, it became a goal.”

Johnson started UC San Diego in 2002 and is majoring in biochemistry at Revelle College. She lives on site at Chula Vista’s Olympic Training Center, works out several times a week, and has taken three quarters off to train for the Olympics.

She said it has been difficult being in school and training for the Olympics. “It is really about managing time,” Johnson said. “I don’t go out a lot on the weekends, but I am really close with my teammates. For us, training doubles as your social life.”

Johnson has raced in the past three world championships and made it into the finals in each competition. She feels confident that she will have success in Beijing. “Athens was my first major senior competition,” she said. “It was a very new experience. This second time around, I can focus on the competition for what I need to do to have the best race I can have.”

Photo of Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson

Julie Swail Ertel first went to the Olympics as a member of the women’s water polo team, but the UC San Diego alum was inspired to become a triathlete after the Sydney games.

She was trying to figure out what to do with her life once she didn’t have to train six to seven hours everyday. One of the Olympic team chiropractors suggested triathlon, one of the sports that require long hours of training, and she fell in love with the sport.

Photo of Julie Swail Ertel
Julie Swail Ertel

Swail Ertel went on to win several races, and in 2007 she won the overall age group in Triathlon World Championships in Cancun, Mexico.

Swail Ertel was a competitive swimmer at age six and she played water polo in high school and college. At UC San Diego she won two national titles and was one of the best athletes on the Triton water polo team, according to her water polo coach Denny Harper.

To this day, Swail Ertel considers Harper the best coach she ever had. Harper currently coaches the men’s water polo at UC San Diego, but he also coached the women’s team when the Olympian was an undergraduate. “He taught me a lot about having the passion for something and pursuing it,” she said. “Harper knew how to command respect from his athletes, so they wanted to work hard for him. “He is firm and hard but he’s also very playful. He’s not afraid to be a real person in front of his athletes.”

Harper shares a similar sentiment. “She was certainly one of the best players I ever had,” he said.  “She’s got guts and a tremendous heart.”

As a freshman on the women’s water polo team at UC San Diego, Swail Ertel played with some excellent players who taught her a lot. That year, the team won the national championships. Later, Swail Ertel was one of only two athletes to captain the university’s water polo team three times.

Photo of Julie Swail Ertel
Julie Swail Ertel

“It’s incredible,” said Harper when asked how it felt to have one of his athletes go back to the Olympics again. “Once was enough.”

Swail Ertel said her experience as a water polo player at UC San Diego helped prepare her to become an Olympic athlete in several ways. She learned to juggle a demanding class schedule and practices. UC San Diego is very challenging school academically, she pointed out. “I learned you never get behind, you always stay on top on things.”

For her second trip to the Olympics, Swail Ertel will compete as an individual athlete, not as part of a team, but she said there are pros and cons to both. “As an individual, if you’re having a bad day, there’s nowhere to hide,” she said. “As a team, when you train, you need to show up and give everything you have every day. As an individual, it’s okay to take a day off once in a while.”

Swail Ertel said she still has fun socializing with water polo players, although she only plays the sport once or twice a year now.

She is excited about going to the Olympics again, and she hopes to bring home another medal.


Media Contact: Christine Clark, 858-534-7618

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