IT ALL STARTED WITH FAST FOOD : Sailor J.J. Fetter Isler Loves to Compete and Hates to Lose
J.J. Fetter Isler’s competitive streak can be traced to fast-food restaurants.
What do hamburgers and fried chicken have to do with the 1986 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year?
You see, whichever of the three Fetter children--J.J., Margi or Trevor--finished highest in a regatta got to choose where the family would stop for dinner on the drive home to La Jolla.
“I’ve had some people tell me that was really sick,” said J.J., the youngest of the children. “We were brought up to kind of push each other rather than be supportive. It was never the kind of cute little, ‘That’s OK, it will be better later’ encouragement. It was more like ‘Grow up!’ ”
And be successful.
“Even now,” Isler said, “it’s almost as if we (the children) still have to prove things to each other. We expect each person in the family to prove themselves.”
J.J.--Jennifer Anne is her real name, but she has been called J. J. since she was very young though nobody is quite sure what it stands for--started sailing competitively when she was 7 and so shy she refused to answer the telephone.
The shyness has worn off, but her competitive streak remains intact.
“I guess I’m competitive,” Isler said. “I don’t know. It’s just that I don’t like to lose.”
And she didn’t lose much last year, when she was named Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year.
“J.J. was a very popular choice,” said Stephen Black, executive director of the United States Yacht Racing Union and chairman of a group of yacht journalists that selected Isler. “She has a record that has been developing very nicely and she had a great year of sailing. She was a pretty clear-cut choice.”
Women’s sailing will become an Olympic sport in 1988, and Isler and her teammate Amy Wardell plan to devote the next two years to preparing to compete in the women’s 470 class.
“J.J.'s always been a very intense competitor,” said Lyon Osborn, commodore of the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club. Osborn was J.J.'s primary sailing teammate during her senior year at Yale. “She wouldn’t ever really relax when we were sailing. The thing that stands out is that she was a natural sailor. She has an amazing sense of the wind shifts that most people don’t seem to have.”
Isler was the first woman captain of the Yale varsity sailing team and was ranked No. 1 on a team that had been dominated by males. She was also the second woman ever to be named collegiate All-American.
“She used technique, not muscle, and could compete with men in the toughest wind conditions,” Osborn said. “I don’t think it was really tough for her. She enjoyed beating these guys. It drove them crazy.”
Isler said skippering against men who were bigger and stronger was no big deal. And beating them wasn’t an extra-special achievement.
“I never felt I had something to prove against men,” she said. “I had something to prove in the competition. I was never upset when I went to a regatta and was the only female skipper. I had some run-ins with sailors when they vented their frustrations and brought up the obvious differences between us.”
Proving herself and surprising people is nothing new for Isler, whose success has surprised her former sailing partner at Yale.
“It seems she’s really improved since she was in college, two years ago,” Osborn said. “She was a very good sailor, but she didn’t stand out as being unbelieveable.”
Then came her post-collegiate career. Isler was assisted on a regular basis by her husband Peter Isler, the navigator on Stars & Stripes. Peter Isler, a two-time All-American sailor at Yale, is familiar with 470s.
“He pushes me pretty hard at regattas,” Isler said. “He plays coach. He takes it really seriously. We push each other pretty hard. It’s almost as if we find it a break from our problems to worry about the other’s problems.”
While her sailing mates and competitors speak of J.J.'s competitiveness, Peter Isler attributes his wife’s success to her dedication and feeling for the sport.
“She has an interesting competitiveness,” he said. “She’s an incredibly smart person and because she has put in the time, she has excelled. Competitive is the last word I’d use to describe her. She’s not being motivated by competitive juices as much as by a love of the sport. I mean, she’s not competitive like Dennis Conner is competitive.”
Then again, very few athletes are as competitive or driven as Dennis Conner.
“With Dennis, everything is a test, a game,” Peter Isler said. “He’s a very competitive person and incredibly motivated. Dennis is definitely more single-minded in a pursuit of a goal than J.J.”
Isler and Wardell won the 1986 International Yacht Racing Union Women’s championship and the women’s division of the European 470 Championship in Denmark. Placing first among 45 other women in Denmark was a big victory for the pair. After that victory, Isler became the leading candidate for the Yachtswoman of the Year award.
While yachting has a glamorous reputation, racing 470s is quite different than racing 12-meters, which are about six times larger than 470s and a lot more expensive.
“It’s like comparing the difference between a $15-million corporation and a $100,000 Olympic campaign,” Peter Isler said.
In San Diego, the Islers live in a small apartment above a store and across the street from Kettenburg Marina (owned by her father, Thompson) where J.J. spends hours checking and double-checking her boat before taking it on the road and putting it in the water.
Despite coming from a prominent family, J.J. has remained as modest and unassuming as she is talented and intelligent.
“I try to do things as cheaply as possible,” said J.J., who is getting financial assistance from her family to prepare for the Olympics. “We stay in motels and don’t budget for housing.”
There was the time Isler and three friends stayed in a motel in Spain for $2 a night. Sometimes she sleeps on boats in marinas and other times she sacks out in sleeping bags at friend’s houses.
“It’s not the glamorous yacht club scene,” she said. “You don’t finish the day, put on your blazer and have a martini. If you can scrimp and save a dollar on dinner, you do it. But you wouldn’t scrimp and save on your boat. Your van may have 200,000 miles and be falling apart, but the boat will be perfect. I try to show up at a regatta with the boat as perfect as it can be.”
“J.J. was the kind of kid that could do everything well,” said Grace Warren, Isler’s biology teacher at Bishop’s High in La Jolla. “She was a very intense student.”
J.J. was on the honor roll all six years she went to junior high and high school at Bishop’s. She was in the Cum Laude Society, had a 4.0 grade-point average and was a National Merit Finalist.
“J.J. was the most organized child I’ve seen in a long time,” Warren said. “Everything was always written on cards. I think she planned every single minute of her life. She was so organized, you wouldn’t have thought she was a child that age.”
After her graduation from Bishop’s, choosing a college was a “traumatic” experience for Isler, according to her mother, Jane Fetter. Isler was accepted at Harvard, California, Yale and Stanford. She chose Yale, mainly because her mother and father attended Stanford and her brother Trevor and sister Margi were already attending Stanford when she was making her decision.
By not going to Stanford, J.J. was able to gain her own identity. While devoting most of her time to sailing at Yale, Isler still graduated with a B average as a history major.
“I wish I’d made academics more of a priority at Yale,” Isler said, “but it was always second to me. It was, ‘How little can I study to get a B?’ ”
Peter assisted the Yale sailing team throughout J.J.'s career there, but the two didn’t begin dating until her senior year. One year later, they were married.
Isler looked over at a wedding photograph of her standing beside Peter on a La Jolla mountain top.
“Getting married at 21 was the smartest thing I’ve ever done,” Isler said. “With all the traveling, it’s been a real source of security. That commitment keeps priorities straight.”
It’s a marriage filled with long stretches of separation. J.J. and Peter may be together only 20% of the time between now and Aug. 1 because of sailing commitments.
“We’re both the kind of people who get so immersed in what we’re doing,” J.J. said.
But they both try to make as much time for one another as possible. J.J. spent six months with Peter during the America’s Cup in Australia. She vacationed and did some office work in the Stars & Stripes compound.
“I was really there for Peter,” J.J. said. “I really enjoyed it. It’s strange when you take all the stress in your life and remove it.”
Since their return from Australia, J.J. and Peter basked in the glory of Stars & Stripes’ victory before getting back to business.
Now, Peter works for Dennis Conner Sports, Inc. in San Diego and sails in international matches. J.J. and Wardell have been competing in qualifying regattas for the world championships, which will be held in West Germany this summer.
“It’s hard being away from each other so much,” Peter said, “but both of us have pretty incredible opportunities.”