Anna Tunnicliffe forgives those who perceive sailing exclusively as a gentleman's sport, a leisurely weekend pastime of gliding on quiet waters.
They have not seen her lift weights heavier than a fridge or the paint-scraping new Olympic race in which the Perrysburg High School graduate's three-man team will be a gold-medal contender next month in London.
"In a match race, rubbing is racing," said Duane Burgoyne of the North Cape Yacht Club in La Salle, Mich.
In fact, the Weymouth, England, venue where Tunnicliffe will attempt to become the first American sailor to win gold medals in two classes is already sold out in anticipation of the one-on-one races around a two-lap course. In a sport miles outside the limelight, Tunnicliffe is ready for her Olympic close-up -- and United States sailing could not have cast a better representative.
The 29-year-old is the defending world sailor of the year and a red-blooded Yank despite spending her first 12 years in Doncaster, England -- a town of 68,000 about five hours north of Weymouth. ("I'm not really going home," said Tunnicliffe, who was naturalized in 2003. "I'm an American!") She is also the new bigger, faster, stronger prototype in an evolving sport.
Forget the bygone images of famed yachtsmen like Dennis Conner, the husky skipper who won four America's Cup titles in the 1970s and '80s. Tunnicliffe, who won a gold medal in the Laser Radial event at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, is a former distance runner who trains at a CrossFit gym six days a week.
Brad Tobias, her trainer in Coral Gables, Fla., called Tunnicliffe one of the top athletes in the country … period. In a recent group workout that included three rounds of 30 clean-and-jerks at the prescribed weight for males, 30 pull-ups and an 800-meter run, she dusted the fastest male by six minutes.
To definitively show sailors are athletes, too, Tunnicliffe posed while sailing in the buff for ESPN The Magazine's artfully photographed "Body Issue," released this week.
Her washboard stomach or 275-pound deadlifts are not just for show, either. In sailing, where core and upper-body strength are a necessity to deftly maneuver the yacht across rough waters, it helps make her the best in the world.
"The main message is, 'Look, we're athletic,' " Tunnicliffe said. "We don't just go booze cruising. Fitness is the one thing we have ultimate control over so we push ourselves to be as fit as possible."
Said Tobias: "It's almost intimidating. If you're another sailor going against Anna Tunnicliffe at this point, you're doubting yourself."
A rise to the top
Tunnicliffe's rise to the top of international sailing is not an arc she could have foreseen years earlier. Heck, she only reluctantly tagged along on her parents' 40-foot yacht growing up in England. The waters were cold, the sport dull.
Just as her father, who worked at a limestone quarrying company, was transferred to Northwest Ohio when she was 12, sometimes the script changes. At the North Cape Yacht Club in LaSalle, Mich., her parents' pastime suddenly seemed palatable.
"When it finally clicked for her, which is when the water was 80 degrees and she didn't have to wear weather gear and a wetsuit, she started taking an interest in it," said Anna's mother, Joanna Tunnicliffe. "And as soon as she takes an interest in something ... "
Tunnicliffe became one of the top junior yachters in the country, the same way she became one of the state's distance runners in track and cross country at Perrysburg. As a senior, she won a district title in the 800 meters in a school-record time of 2 minutes, 17.56 seconds.
She stuck to the water, though, where her doggedness, athleticism, and brains made her the ideal skipper. (Sailors must be amateur physicists, relentlessly adjusting the angle of the sail in relation to the wind.)
At Old Dominion, she won four national titles and was named the country's top college female sailor, then shook up an international scene dominated in recent years by Great Britain. In 2008, she became the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic gold medal in sailing since 1988.
A new adventure
Now, she has traded her dinghy for an Elliott 6-meter boat and two teammates, Debbie Capozzi and Molly Vandemoer. The three are longtime friends and their chemistry has shown. Team Maclaren qualified the top U.S. boat at the Olympic trials in Weymouth.
Tunnicliffe, who lives with her husband, Brad Funk, in Plantation, Fla., embraces the excitement of the new event. Where her focus was simply on racing her boat as fast as possible in the Laser Radial, match racing presents a series of one-on-one chess matches. The races are decided as much by positioning and gamesmanship as speed.
"If you imagine the old movies where you see cars playing chicken who's going to pull out first, that's a bit like what it is," Joanna Tunnicliffe said. "Who can push it the furthest without making contact? Who's got the nerve to stay in position longer?"
And if there is contact, oh, well. The stakes are too high to worry about an occasional penalty. Once the top eight teams are determined in preliminary races, the event is single-elimination.
"It can get quite aggressive," said Anna Tunnicliffe, who away from the water is modest and exceedingly polite.
In truth, she said these give-and-take calculations are a reason fitness is so important. Their focus must be so consistently lasered that there is no time worry about fatigue. It's why she is so committed to living healthy. She recently joined her teammates in training with Navy SEALS; took on a half Ironman triathlon; trains on land 90 minutes per day; and positioned herself to compete at the 2013 CrossFit Games.
"Sailing is such a mental game, so the more you can stay mentally fresh, the better," Tunnicliffe said. "The more you can be to be able to handle the physical side of the day, the more you can stay mentally on top of the game."
For the rest of the world, that means keep your head on a swivel.
"Anna's the big dog," Burgoyne said. "She's the guy who won the Super Bowl and teams prepare for her."
Tunnicliffe won't go there. As she returns to her birth country for the Games, she simply hopes Team Maclaren represents her home well.
"We'll all be carrying the flag for America," she said.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.