When classes started at the University of Colorado, Boulder, this year, athletic director Rick George arranged a welcome back picnic for athletes, and invited a CU alumna to talk to them about mental health. The athlete, Juli Furtado, had won the collegiate cycling nationals, then the U.S. Road Nationals while at CU, before going on to dominate the sport of competitive mountain biking. She’d also grown up with a mentally ill mother who eventually took her life, as did her older sister. Furtado herself experienced a breakdown five years ago, and emerged with better coping tools, and a desire to help other athletes. Furtado knows about victory, and also about loss. One of her hardest losses was also one of her earliest—the sport of ski racing.
Every so often in sport, a wunderkind shows up, a “natural” who, from an early age seems uncommonly adept at his or her sport—physically, technically and mentally—and destined for greatness. Though it’s increasingly unlikely for someone to rise from obscurity without great wealth, meticulous sports-specific grooming, or both, ski racing has certainly had its share of phenoms over the years. Many of them ended up with Olympic medals, many fizzled, but none went on to completely dominate another sport entirely in the way Juli Furtado dominated mountain biking. In addition to her five national titles and three World Cup titles, she is the only person—male or female— to win the World Championship in downhill and cross-country. Before Furtado was the face of mountain biking, she was a top prospect in US Skiing. In the words of one reporter, in his March 1981 feature for the New York Post: ”I have seen the future of ski racing and her name is Juliana Furtado.”
Juliana Furtado grew up in New York and New Jersey, the middle of three kids born to musician Tommy Furtado and ballet dancer Nina Armaugh. Her father, a popular cabaret singer, entertained the likes of Frank Sinatra and once sang at Yankee Stadium, while her mother gave up her dancing career to raise the kids. The marriage ended in a bitter divorce, and Nina packed a U-Haul and moved to Londonderry, VT with their three kids. The middle child, 9-year-old Juli, excelled among boys and girls at every sport she tried, including soccer, tennis and Little League baseball. She was at once driven to high performance and painfully shy, so averse to standing out that she became Juli vs Juliana; dogged the Presidential Fitness test at school; and claimed to have been chasing her dog when someone spied her on a pre-dawn training run. She idolized quiet athletes like Bjorn Borg, Ingemar Stenmark and America’s then phenom, Tamara McKinney.
When Nina insisted the kids join an after school ski program, Juli picked ski racing and took to it immediately. By age 11, she had already gained notice from TD McCormick, Stratton’s J-3 coach. The school offered her a full scholarship, starting in 7th grade winter term, and found her equipment and clothing sponsors as well. By age 12 Furtado was beating competition years her senior. In 1981, when Furtado was 13, a New York Times Sunday magazine article on Stratton Mountain School quoted coach Dave Kerwyn that she “could be tomorrow’s World Champion.” A month later she was featured in the New York Post.
Furtado qualified for the US Ski Team at age 15, and started making money from equipment sponsors (in that era, all expenses and travel were fully funded). Her first major purchase was a Volkswagen Rabbit with the license plate “2Fun.”
“Making that money and having a car saved my life,” she said.
The car meant escape from what she has called “the worst mother-daughter relationship you could possibly imagine,” and independence to be with her ski racing family, on whom she depended for love and stability. In 1984, at age 16, she raced in her first World Cup, and already had a Europa Cup podium on her resume. She was poised for greatness, and for fulfilling her dream to race in the Olympics. Furtado’s fierce and fluid technique brought speed, and brought her so close to the gates that she frequently knocked her goggles off her head (because of this Furtado was among the first athletes to wear a SL helmet). In the last Europa Cup race before the Olympics, in a field stacked with Olympic bound athletes, Furtado finished the first run in 2nd place, ahead of Italian ace Maria Rosa Quario. On the second run she knocked her goggles on a gate and blew out. That would be her last ski race with a fully functioning body.
Two weeks later Furtado blew out her knee while skiing an injured friend down the hill on her back. A mere six months later, after grueling rehab, she blew her out her knee again at a dryland training camp when a football linebacker rushed her as part of a sled drill. Six months later, after an entire year off snow and two full knee reconstructions, she was back in Europe competing on the January Europa Cup circuit. This was before the era of a methodical “return to snow” program, and not surprisingly, she again blew her knee out.
The day after she graduated from Stratton Mountain School in the spring of 1985, she packed up 2Fun and moved to Colorado. There, her teammate Amy Livran’s family became her surrogate family and she “hopscotched around” at various homes between ski camps and surgeries. These families, along with books and the journals she kept religiously, became her stability. The following year brought some impressive results, but more injuries. In all she had six knee constructions, and by age 19 her US Ski Team days—and her Olympic dreams—seemed over. She took advantage of a full scholarship (rare among Americans) to the University of Colorado, Boulder. At first she was able to ski race—and sometimes win— for them.
A STAR IS BORN, AGAIN
Living in Colorado, Furtado gained an appreciating for cycling, going for rides on a bike she’d won at the Stowe Sugar Slalom, volunteering at the Coors Classic and befriending some top cyclists.
“I always had a super egotistical thought I could be great at two sports,” says Furtado, who was also drawn to the team aspect of road racing.
While still ski racing, she joined the Alfalfa-Zen road team and started learning the ropes. That summer, in her first cycling Nationals, nobody paid much attention when she and another rider broke away within the first five miles of the 50-mile race. The other rider soon faded but Furtado stayed solo, and by the time the pack tried to reel her in, she was too far ahead. The win automatically qualified her for the Worlds, after which Furtado decided to quit ski racing to pursue bike racing full time. CU honored her scholarship (for which Furtado will always feel indebted) and she graduated with a business degree in 1992.
TAKING TO THE MOUNTAINS
At the time, mountain biking was starting to take off, especially in Colorado. After doing a few local races on a mountain bike she’d won, she called Yeti owner John Parker, who sponsored her. Furtado’s ski skills and strength translated well to mountain biking, (though the SL skier in her sometime forgot that trees didn’t bend), especially when combined with her remarkable aerobic capacity and work ethic. Because she knew she wasn’t a good sprinter, her tactic was to go out as hard as she could to build a lead, then get into a comfortable aerobic zone and try to stay ahead. Instead of the power of positive thinking, Furtado fueled herself with a fear of failure (not to mention a LOT of coffee). Rather than envisioning success, she imagined everything that could go wrong—including losing—and channeled that fear into a competitive fury.
In 1991, Durango hosted the inaugural Mountain Biking World Championship. The night before the race, she had dinner with fellow phenom John Tomac.
“You know you can win this,” he told her.
What she lacked technically she more than made up in endurance, and enjoyed biking’s larger margin for error.
“I was so stoked I could make a mistake and it would not ruin the race. That was a big relief for me,” she said.
Furtado did win, and it launched her into the big time.
THE OLYMPIC DREAM, TAKE TWO
She moved to Durango, bought her first house, and started world mountain bike domination. The wins, the money and the awards, kept coming. In 1992 she won the downhill Worlds a day after dislocating her patella, and in 1993 she was virtually unbeatable, winning all nine World Cup races. In one span over three years “The Queen” as she was simply known, won seventeen straight World Cup races and earned respect throughout the sport. In the early days of California’s Sea Otter Classic, women started behind the men. The first year, when Furtado passed the men they tried to block her. The second year, they got off their bikes, moved aside and cheered her on. VeloNews named her International cyclist of the year in 1993. In 1994, the US Cycling Federation named her Female Athlete of the Year, the first mountain biker to earn the honor.
That same year, her mother died by suicide. Furtado wrestled with her feelings of guilt and sorrow while squarely in the public spotlight. Mountain biking had been added to the Olympics for 1996, and the press mobbed the Olympic favorite. In addition to cycling press, she did a photo shoot with Annie Liebowitz, a Nike Commercial, and was featured in Newsweek, Cosmo, Sports Illustrated, Outside and Delta’s SKY magazine. It was the “Year of the Women” in sports, and Furtado—who was by then commanding equal pay from sponsors and equal prize money—was the leading star.
In the year leading up to the Olympics Furtado struggled with fatigue, bombing in races she usually won.
“I thought, ‘I am just giving up. This is really who I am. I am no good.’ It was horrible,” she said.
She kept up with the press nonetheless, and, as if following the script, won the final trial before the Olympics— on the Olympic course— by a whopping eight minutes. Nonetheless, going in to the Olympic competition she was hoping for a miracle. Furtado had never struggled with heat, but in Atlanta she wilted. Italian Paula Pezzo would win Olympic gold, and Furtado finished 9th. This time, she was eight minutes behind. While recovering from yet another knee surgery, Furtado was diagnosed with Lupus. By the end of 1997, she realized she could not race with the disease, scheduled a press conference call, and retired at age 29.
Furtado moved away from Durango to Santa Cruz. Once removed from the competitive world, she saw the need for women specific bikes, that incorporated features in her own custom equipment.
“I knew I had a platform, and I always loved marketing,” Furtado explained.
In 1999 Santa Cruz Bicycles introduced the Juliana.
“Within five years every manufacturer had a women’s line,” she said..
Six or seven years ago, she had another revelation.
“I realized we had opened the door and everybody else had barged in.”
She proposed and helped create a complete line of women specific Juliana bikes, including the “Furtado” which, like LeMond and Merckx, is a name that stands on its own in cycling.
Today, Furtado lives in Santa Cruz with her 10-year-old son Wyatt, who, not surprisingly, excels at sports. So far he is not much interested in cycling or skiing, but he muses about his future as a pro athlete. When he does, she talks about the importance of education. While they enjoy watching sports—they do an MLB tour in the summer—they also connect over more cerebral things like crossword puzzles, reading, and episodes of her favorite show, Seinfeld.
Despite the success in cycling, Furtado still considers skiing her first love, and cherishes both the sport and her ski family.
“Skiing was my life. For so many reasons, including time of life, biking didn’t take the place,” she says.
Physically, she’s remarkably healthy.
“My body is a freak. I should feel like I’m 90 years old, but I feel my age,” Furtado says.
And she manages her Lupus without medication.
Still grateful for the platform she gained through sport, Furtado saw the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade as a sign that is was time to speak out to athletes about mental health. Eager to give back to CU, she jumped at the chance to share her message, which included passages from 36 years of journals she kept religiously, and which she summed up here:
#1. Build an emotional foundation here. The patterns you set up now, get harder year after year after you graduate. If you have issues please reach out. Or if you see others struggling, reach out to them.
#2. Try to get your degree!
#3. Never give up! Or never give up hope that one day you’ll get out of this.
Juli Furtado was inducted into the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame in 1993 and into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2005. A book on her life is in the works.