For years, Jeff Julian has been one of the best swimming coaches in Southern California. The head swimming coach at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center has devoted his life to the sport, guiding and mentoring countless athletes and coaching Olympian Jason Lezak prior to his remarkable, multiple-medal-winning performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Julian, 45, has become even more influential after surviving a bout with stage 4 lung cancer in 2015. He became a motivational speaker and has served as a beacon of hope and optimism for athletes and families who know him. His sister, Jaimi Julian Thompson, said he seems to be more of a teacher than a coach, providing “lessons that help people be successful in life.”
“I’ve learned everything I teach,” said Julian, an eight-time All-American and then-Pac-10 Conference champion at USC from 1994-97. “I’ve come to learn that I have so much more to offer when I have so much more to learn. What I try to teach and what I value in terms of coaching is teaching life lessons. If I’m not going through the same teachings I’ve taught, it’s not valuable.”
One of his biggest lessons is to remain “positive and optimistic and not dwelling on a negative result, whether in the water or what’s given to us in life,” and Julian is practicing what he preaches more than ever after being diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer last month.
“I’m a huge believer in process,” said Julian, a Glendale resident. “It’s also about working your process and realizing things might change, and you might have to change how you do it along the way. This is where I’m at now, and I know what I can do. I just have to focus on it.”
It was a difficult process five years ago when multiple doctors told Julian he didn’t have much time to live, as if it “was a foregone conclusion, like it was a done deal,” and it’s especially tough now as he — with the help of his sister — navigates what seems like an obstacle course when it comes to his health insurance coverage.
Nearly one month ago, a 3-centimeter mass was found in his gastrointestinal system that created a blockage, which explained his weight loss the previous few months.
It all happened not long after he was named head coach of the International Swimming League’s Northern California team, the Cali Condors. Julian had enjoyed his time as an assistant coach for the team during the league’s inaugural 2019 season, which made the decision to step down from the new position a tough one.
“That was disappointing,” Julian said. “The environment that the ISL is creating is, I think, amazing for the sport of swimming. The professionals, especially those on the team, are amazing to work with.”
Doctors successfully performed bypass surgery to create a new entry point for Julian’s stomach in late September. He has been recovering from the procedure and putting on weight as he prepared for cancer treatment, but that process hit a snag on Oct. 13. He arrived early for his appointment and was eager to begin the process, but a health insurance issue arose and delayed immunotherapy and chemotherapy treatments, a difficult moment for Julian.
“[Last week] was a false start on treatment and it hit me pretty hard,” he said. “But it also woke me up this second time. I was ready and optimistic. A lot of that awkward feeling is I was just waiting to be able to start and waiting for someone to be able to tell me I was good enough to recover.”
As he always does when a hardship occurs, Julian learned from it and switched his focus to what he can control.
“I just going to do everything I can do and continue to get healthier, get stronger and put weight on and be ready,” he said. “It was a wakeup call for me.”
That pivot in attitude wouldn’t surprise anyone that knows Julian, especially his swimmers.
“He’s the kind of coach who puts the responsibility on you,” said Alexandra Syrkin, who has swum at Rose Bowl Aquatics the past four years. “If you want to put the work in, he’s there for you. He’s there to guide you, but a lot of the work you do has to be on your own. He’s not there to hold your hand. He’s there to work alongside you, and teaches you that it’s OK to ask for help.”
Fortunately for Julian, not only does he have support from his wife, Kristine, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist and 10-time national swimming champion, and his son Trenton, a former Glendale High School standout who now swims for Cal Berkeley, but also the dozens of families and athletes he’s met as a coach.
They banded together to start a Team Jeff page on GoFundMe on Oct. 8 to help alleviate the costs of treatment that may not be covered by Julian’s insurance.
“The Rose Bowl Aquatics parents back in January of 2015 sprang into action like no other,” said Julian’s sister Jaimi. “They are the founders of Team Jeff. They leapt into action then and leapt into action now, and they are so resolute. That was all the Rose Bowl team parents and then it spread from there. They are responsible.”
As of Monday morning, Team Jeff had raised $47,094, surpassing its goal of $40,000. The many lives Julian has touched are now what inspire him as he prepares for the next phase of treatment.
“Team Jeff and my support group have been there for me through the years,” Julian said. “The talk about the journey is always difficult but [talking about the support from Team Jeff] isn’t difficult. [It’s] more emotional than anything else. It’s hard to put into words. I feel very blessed every time I see it, whether that be from parents or someone that was on the team or on the team now.”
The gestures from families not only kept Julian motivated five years ago, but his sister as well.
“I’m so grateful, and I know Jeff takes tremendous hope and strength from it. Our whole family is grateful,” she said. “It really helped back then. He was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and he had six to 12 months to live with treatment and basically get his affairs in order. At that point in time, we received a tremendous outpouring of support, resources and a lot of help with referrals and recommendations. Our motto was to leave no stone unturned.”
Julian certainly didn’t back down and was part of a clinical trial of immunotherapy that helped him — along with his positive attitude — ultimately survive the journey with lung cancer. He received much support during that time, but his mother’s attitude is what really shaped and prepared him for such a daunting ordeal.
“I think it comes from my mom, who gave me that optimism and belief in positivity,” Julian said. “She was just always a champion of the underdog, believing anything can happen. In that way, a lot of my personality comes through from her.”
The experience enlightened him, and that wisdom made a better person and an even better coach.
“I see Jeff and I see one of the strongest people I’ve ever seen in my life, mentally and physically,” said Danny Syrkin, a freshman at USC who was a CIF Southern Section Division II champion at La Cañada High School and swam for Rose Bowl Aquatics under Julian’s guidance. “It’s inspiring to me. One thing I can say about Jeff and my time there is that he helped me grow tremendously as a person, not just an athlete.”
Julian will continue his duties, having recently held a meeting via Zoom with other Rose Bowl coaches to discuss work, which he believes will help his emotional well-being.
“I tend to be better when active,” he said. “I’m going back to the pool. I’ll be limited in my yelling because of the surgery, but it’s going to be good to get on deck and actually see people.”
Swimmers and families will certain appreciate it, including Margaret O’Rourke, whose four children have swum competitively for the Rose Bowl.
“There aren’t that many exceptional coaches out there for swimming, and he is an exceptional coach, as is all the staff at the Rose Bowl,” O’Rourke said. “I remember something that he said in one of the email communications with the swimmers that parents were copied on. It was something like ‘You were never wrong to hope that you could do it.’ He’s just very good about helping swimmers manage their expectations and focusing on the process and making small improvements every day.”
Julian expressed that hope and idea of incrementally bettering one’s self in a recent blog post.
“I will still work to recover, gain weight, improve strength and prepare myself mentally and physically for the fight ahead, but I will now do it knowing that I will control my daily life,” he wrote on teamjeff.org. “I will not only remain optimistic and hopeful about the future, but I will live today with that same optimism and hope. It’s a great feeling to be back to attacking each day for the future I want versus living each day with the hurdle I have in front of me. That intention must be there for all of us in order for us to enjoy the process of life.”
The Rose Bowl coach received some good news on Monday. Doctors informed him that treatment — which includes Opdivo (immunotherapy) and Folfox (chemotherapy) — was approved and scheduled to begin days later and Julian’s certainly ready for the fight.
“Feeling much better now and ready to take [Tuesday] as a full recovery day before we get started to kick cancer’s butt,” he wrote on Monday.