Julie Ertel has softened up since her first season as girls’ water polo coach at JSerra High School. She had to experience a learning curve and traverse through some growing pains, just like most others that are new to the program.
Ertel came to JSerra in the summer of 2009 with a resume unlike her peers in the aquatics coaching community, most notably recounting two trips to the Olympics in two different sports.
She went by her maiden name of Julie Swail when she played on the U.S. National women’s water polo team from 1994-2000, and was captain of the 2000 Olympic team that won silver at the Summer Games in Sydney.
There are a lot of life lessons that can be had by playing the game of water polo. That’s the best part about coaching.
– Julie Ertel
She then ventured into the sport of triathlon, finished first in her third-ever event in 2001 and eventually became good enough to win gold at the 2007 Pan-American Games and qualify for the 2008 Olympic team that competed in Beijing.
Ertel had coaching experience before she came to JSerra, serving as head coach of the women’s water polo team for one year at Rio Hondo College in 1998-99, then taking over the following season as the first women’s coach at UC Irvine, where she spent four years.
JSerra would be her first experience coaching at the high school level, however.
Initially, she had difficulty relating to the commitment level many of her players made to the sport. After all, she never considered missing a practice when she played at Valencia High School in Placentia, “even if I was throwing up,” she said.
But Ertel gradually began to understand that many of her players were true student-athletes who put their academic performance and involvement in other campus activities on the same priority level as athletics, if not higher.
“They’re very diversified in their talents and I had to realize that this is just one of their many talents,” Ertel said of her players. “Once I got that into perspective, it’s been a little more enjoyable because I realized that they’re doing this truly for the joy of the sport, not because they think they can play professionally, or on an Olympic team or in college.”
Ertel uses her Olympic experience to guide her players, but not so much when it comes to strategy. Instead, she tries to teach them other aspects of competition, such as how to conduct themselves as athletes.
Just recently, she had a long conversation with her players about sportsmanship following a loss. She reminded them that they need to exit the pool with a positive attitude and be sincere when congratulating the other team.
“Realize this is just a game that we’re all passionate about,” she said. “There are a lot of life lessons that can be had by playing the game of water polo. That’s the best part about coaching.”
Ertel, who turned 42 last month, is also the mother of 5-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. Finding time to coach, train and compete can be challenging, but she found time to participate in a Masters water polo event recently, where her children watched her play for the first time. Next month plans to compete in a sprint triathlon in Laguna Niguel.
“During my [coaching] season I’m totally dormant because I have no time in the world, but I hope to compete again,” she said.