The Process of Courage

by Casey Barrett

Jeff Julian – Friend, Coach, Cancer Survivor To-Be… 

You’re sitting in a doctor’s office. Something’s been bothering you, a pain in your back and neck that just isn’t getting better. You’re fit, not yet 40, a former champion butterflyer who knows his body the way only swimmers do. Your days are spent active, on your feet on a pool deck, under a warm Southern California sun. The pain has been progressing for a few months now, but Advil usually takes care of it. Whatever it is, there must be an easy explanation. It’s probably just one of those nagging signs of aging, the aches and pains of creeping middle age.

But then one night you’re out to dinner with your wife and the pain becomes too much to ignore. You contact a doctor. The next day you head to the hospital.

And then, after a whirlwind of tests, you hear the unthinkable. The C-word, says the doctor. It’s lung cancer, he tells you. It doesn’t get more serious.

How would you react?

If you’re Jeff Julian, head coach of Rose Bowl Aquatics and former All-American at USC, your response is the very definition of courage. You announce your diagnosis on Facebook with unblinking candor and a fearlessness that’s hard to fathom. Then, you end your note to your stunned readers with this line: “I wanted to share this with you one time, before I put my head down and get ready to kick some ass.”

Hear that, cancer? Prepare yourself for a beat down.

Picture the polar opposite of a lung cancer sufferer. That is Jeff Julian. Never a smoker, a world class athlete, a wise coach with perspective and patience, possessed of a singular So Cal laugh that never fails to send out positive vibrations. The last man you’d expect.

Soon after his diagnosis, his team at Rose Bowl created #TEAMJeff – a site where you can support his fight and join his legion of friends and family across the swimming universe. Through the CaringBridge website, you can follow his journal, and at his site at YouCaring you can offer financial support to help fund the battle.

Jeff and I have been friends for 22 years now, since our recruiting trip to USC the same weekend in the fall of 1992. We were both 200 flyers, about the same speed, and we both fell for SC instantly. We entered as freshmen together in the fall of ’93, our dorm rooms separated by two floors, our practices separated by a few feet. We were usually in the same lane, or right nearby, both cranking out the same sets with the same goals. You might think that would make us rivals. I was certainly the prickly sort, not always polite in practice. But Jeff was, and is, a man who received effortless respect. Probably because he respected everyone around him. Maybe it also had something to do with his undeniable work ethic or the way he led by example.

It’s easy to slip into cliché when reminiscing on those college glory days, forgive me. This isn’t some sepia toned drift down memory lane. Just a bit of context.

We both chose swimming as our careers after we hung up the goggles, and as a result, we managed to cross paths with some regularity through the years, despite living on opposite coasts. If you’re lucky, you have friends like these – the ones where a year, five years, a decade can go by, and you can start chatting and pick up right where you left off.

This afternoon we picked right up again on a long phone call. The circumstances weren’t great. I was calling about the News. The worst kind of elephant in any room. Yet, for the first half of the call, we didn’t mention it. Not because either of us were dancing around that bastard C-word, but because we just had a lot to catch up about. There were the usual stupid-fast results from SEC’s, for instance. There were the updates on our teams, our kids. (Note to Coach Dave Salo: Keep an eye on this Trenton Julian kid. I want future book odds on Trenton winning NCAAs in the 200 fly around the year 2021… As a Trojan, if they’re lucky.)

Then we talked about a video Jeff had made for his swimmers and parents at Rose Bowl Aquatics last fall. If you missed it on Swim Swam, take a look. If you’re a club coach, it should be required viewing. The theme of the talk is “Improve Your Swimming Process.” Think Nick Saban, but for swimmers, So Cal-style. Unlike Alabama’s football guru, Julian’s idea of the “process” has a lot to do with the joy of the moment. But like Saban, it is about doing things the right way, in all ways. You don’t look at the scoreboard or the clock or the swimmer in the next lane, you look within yourself and you figure out ways to do things better.

Jeff spoke about the dangers of ‘the chase.’ The way so many parents and swimmers believe that’s the secret to improving – they need someone to chase, someone just a little bit better, that carrot dangling out there. Or maybe it’s that green light across the bay. A doomed recipe for fulfillment anyway you cut it. Jeff saw right through it, and he’s challenging all of his swimmers to transcend it. Instead of the chase, turn within and figure out the ways you can improve each skill, and do things right in the present tense every day.

He could never have known how personal and prescient that advice would be. Soon after sharing this wisdom with the swimming world, Jeff received his diagnosis. The day was January 4th. The night after his dinner with his wife of 17 years, Kristine Quance Julian, when the pain became too much. Things unraveled after that, and the news devolved from bad to worse. First it was in the lungs, but with the hope that it could be cut out of the lower lobe. Scary and life-rattling, but over quickly. No need to share with the world.

But then Jeff learned that it had spread to the bone and muscle. That meant Stage 4. Doesn’t get much scarier. That’s when Jeff decided to open up and post that message to Facebook. He was staring down the heaviest news a human being can receive, and he was letting the world know he was ready.

While we were chatting, I began jotting down notes. I told him I wanted to write about this and he gave this story his blessing. Here are some quotes that say all you need to know about the man:

“The only time I get emotional at all is when I think of all the love and support that’s poured in.” 

“So far things are really good. I feel so blessed.” 

“Ironically, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in in twenty years. I’ve changed my diet, get plenty of rest, I’m swimming everyday, averaging about a mile each day.” 

“Timing-wise, I got lucky.” 

Wait, come again? Lucky? You heard that right. See, instead of chemo or radiation, Jeff is undergoing a trial process of immunotherapy. It’s not on the market yet, and it’s not available to everyone. After consulting with physicians at USC and UCLA Medical, he was chosen to participate in a trial of a drug that is reputed to ‘attack the bad cells and stop them from growing.’ As opposed to your classic chemo, that pretty much nukes everything, good and bad. The drug is called Nivolumab, and so far it appears to be working.

After a brutal first few weeks, as the pain intensified and the mind reeled, he began receiving biweekly treatments. After the second round he immediately felt a difference. He reports that “the last two weeks, I’ve been feeling awesome.” He’s been forgoing the pain meds and the night sweats have faded away. He got up to 2200 yards in the pool the other day.

There remains a long way to go, and Jeff knows it. But he also knows that success will come by sticking with the process. By doing the right things everyday, and going all the way in his commitment – to live and to fight another day.