Julia Kelly works endlessly to be the fastest one in the pool, but dreams of a future working on the frontlines of scientific research on the human brain.
A North Hall High senior, she’s one of he most decorated swimmers in county history. That’s earned her the opportunity to continue swimming next year at Georgia Tech.
However, her other passion is much more nuanced.
The owner of eight school records and four county swimming records wants to study neuroscience, with the goal of aiding in eradicating mental health issues and degenerative brain diseases.
“I’ve had family and friends who have been impacted with mental health issues, and I want to help them out,” said Kelly, who spent her senior year dual enrolled and earning college credits at Lanier Technical College.
An honors student with a 4.2 GPA, the incoming Yellow Jackets swimmer has completed six courses at the two-year Oakwood campus, and stands a couple credits short of being a sophomore in college, she said.
Between the pool and academics, Kelly has a full schedule.
“Julia’s great with her time management,” said her mother Lyn.
As a senior, Kelly, a four-time state placer, earned second at the state championship meet in the 100-yard freestyle (51.53 seconds) among the Class A-3A schools and also garnered first-team All-State honors.
She was able to balance a rigourous academic workload with the time it takes to be an elite swimmer. Kelly had a long drive, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, as a member of the Spartans Aquatics Club at Greater Atlanta Christian School in Lilburn.
Also, three days a week she’s in the weight room for strength training.
However, the payoff is when she takes to the starting block and it’s time to compete.
“It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe,” said Kelly. “My mind goes completely blank, and I’m just focused on swimming.”
Kelly puts every ounce of effort into being an elite swimmer. However, it will never take precedent over academics and career ambition.
Lyn never misses a minute of her daughter’s progress in the pool. They travel to every meet together, when possible.
“I’m incredibly proud of what she’s been able to accomplish,” Lyn said.
Swimming at North Hall, Kelly’s career was highlighted with a pair of top-three finishes at state in both the 50 and 100 free. She holds Hall County records in the 50 free, 100 free, 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke.
However, the start to her swimming career was inauspicious, at best.
When she was 10, Kelly went to her first practice with the Splash Aquatics Club at the Frances Meadows Aquatics Center. Kelly has been swimming as long as she can remember. Lyn said the thinking was having her daughter take up club swimming to assist in endurance as a dancer.
However, Julia almost called it quits after a difficult first day in the water. She still remembers frantically propelling her body to the wall with no more oxygen left in her lungs. Breathing technique was something Julia would come to learn with time.
“I was really scared from that first practice,” Kelly said. “It was traumatizing.”
Club coach Andy Deichert recognized talent in Kelly. Along with her family, they gave young Julia a pep talk the next day in hopes she would give it another attempt.
Julia kept showing up to the indoor pool. She also got a lot faster.
Her progress was noticeable, before she said she hit a plateau around age 13 or 14.
One of the reasons she kept swimming was the influence of North Hall swimmers Paul and Ty Powers, brothers one year apart in age, and at the peak of their high school careers while Julia was still in middle school.
Paul and Ty both shattered Hall County records, were All-Americans and went on to swim at Michigan and Tennessee, respectively.
“They (Paul and Ty) were definitely my role models in swimming,” Kelly said. “They were a lot older than me so I watched them from a distance and followed their drive for swimming.”
Now, Julia’s the swimmer that younger athletes look up to at the pool. She wants to set a good example.
“I’ve met some of those middle school swimmers who came up to me, and I remember how I felt back then,” she said.
Kelly’s final swim meet as a high school swimmer was the most rewarding finish, despite coming up just a bit short of winning the state championship.
Touching the wall and gaining her second career second-place finish at state was a sign of all the sacrifice she’s put into the sport.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person and an athlete these past four years,” Kelly said.
Now, she’s ready to pour that same energy into studying science and matters of the brain at Georgia Tech.