When Jim Owen and the rest of the Cowboy Ethics team were deciding whom to profile in The Try, Julia Anderson – the pen name for Klaudia Birkner—immediately stood out as someone with profound life lessons to share. Marji Wilkens interviewed her for the book, returned to spend personal time with Julia, and soon joined her circle of friends and supporters. Through Marji we had frequent updates on Julia, whose abiding spirit shone through despite her worsening physical condition. Upon learning Julia’s passing we asked Marji to write a tribute to her friend, who lived a life of Try up until the very end.
I first encountered Julia in 2009 when I interviewed her for The Try. To me, her life looked like a tale of unmitigated woe: a difficult childhood in foster care, the onset of blindness, and then a promising ski racing career cut short by a mysterious disease that left her bedridden. I expected to find some amount of self-pity or longing for things lost. What a delight instead to meet a woman of ferocious determination with a sparkling mind and spirit.
I soon became part of a small group of friends who visited Julia regularly. I always came away amazed and grateful for our conversations. Julia was a teacher, and I was one of her privileged students.
Our little team took Julia skiing, ice-skating, to the park and on other outings. Ordinary excursions perhaps, but you have to understand that Julia’s body was like a floppy rag doll. It took an hour or more to dress her for skiing and get her into hip-to-toe metal braces. Then the arm braces went on. She looked like Ironman until we zipped up her US Ski Team jacket and she glided to the lift. On the slopes Julia was fast, sleek and beautiful. She last skied on February 23, 2013.
From Julia I learned two life lessons. The first is that hope can keep you alive. She never stopped researching her disease and treatments. She read countless medical textbooks and advised her physicians, feeding them research papers. As her beloved neurologist said, “I learned that she was always right.” Julia always believed that with the right information and right attitude things could get better.
The second lesson I learned is the meaning of “purpose.” Julia believed that we are all here to pay attention, learn, and see our life as a complete whole. Every experience, even its bleakest, darkest moments, has its place in the tapestry of life. She summed it up this way: “When I think about the past, I see that what was negative at the time turned out well in the end. Certain things had to happen for me to know what I know and be who I am.”
Since Julia has been gone I’ve tried to think about life as she did. Stuff happens. Get over it. Don’t let anyone define your limits. Nothing is impossible unless you say it is. Live fully and pay attention. Fight to the end. If all that isn’t “The Try” in action, I don’t know what is. Thank you, Julia, from the bottom of my heart.