"First girl" trophies have never held much interest for JJ Isler. Since she began racing dinghies at the San Diego Yacht Club at the age of seven, she has been an equal-opportunity butt kicker, thrashing competitors regardless of gender, creed or color. "What is a "first girl' trophy anyway," she asks, "but an unspoken message that you're never going to win 'first overall'?"
As a Yale senior in 1985, Isler was the first female captain of the school's sailing team, and the only woman on that year's All-America squad. Another nautical barrier fell this week when Isler became the first woman to skipper a boat in the Congressional Cup, the august nine-race series off the coast of Long Beach. At 29—Isler's age, incidentally—the Congressional Cup is the oldest regatta on the Omega Grand Prix match-racing circuit and one of the truest tests of seamanship (seapersonship?) in yacht racing. With all competitors sailing in identical Catalina 37 sloops, the outcome is determined by the cunning of the, uhh, helmsperson, rather than the design of the boat.
Match racing is starkly different from fleet racing, which Isler did at Yale and in the '92 Olympics at Barcelona, where she skippered a boat, crewed by Pam Healy, that took the bronze medal in the women's 470 class. Boats in match racing are bigger than the 15½-foot 470s she sailed off Barcelona, and the tactics are more "in your face."
"When JJ's at the helm," says her husband, Peter, who's the top-ranked match-racing skipper in the U.S., "she becomes a different person, a very focused, intense competitor." Peter discovered this at the Grundig Cup off St. Tropez, in the spring of 1988, when he lost an early heat to his wife, who had outfoxed him at the start. It was an expensive lesson for both: The loss knocked Peter out of the semifinals, costing him $12,000 minimum.
The two were married in August '85, shortly after JJ's graduation from Yale. That Yale had splendid sailing facilities but no coach suited her just fine. To determine who would sail in each weekend's regattas, team members would race one another as soon as they got out of class on Thursdays and Fridays. Winners of these competitions chose where they would race. "If I won," says Isler, who won a lot, "there was no way some guy I'd just beaten could say, 'No, really, you should go to the women's regatta."
The most stinging defeat of her career came at the 1988 Olympic trials in Newport, where she and crew Amy Wardell failed to make the team in the women's 470 class. "We had the wrong attitude," says Isler. "We were complacent." For the '92 Olympics, Isler and crew Healy used a new, more aggressive approach, winning the trials and then the bronze medal in Barcelona.
In an essay entitled "Looking Through the Glass Ceiling," in the February issue of Sailing World, Isler laments the trend among many top women sailors to participate solely in women-only regattas, which "spawn the attitude that women cannot compete equally" with men. "Set your sights high and put on your hard hat," Isler implores, "so we can crash through that glass ceiling together."