Sailing was drudgery for Anna Tunnicliffe when she was a girl growing up in England.
She would not venture out willingly, “so my parents shoved the boat away from the dock, waved goodbye and said they would see me at dinnertime,” Tunnicliffe recalled.
Besides, it was cold and gray, and she was the worst, slowest sailor on her junior club team.
She wanted to quit, which would have been a shame, because today Tunnicliffe is the best, fastest yachtswoman in the world, soon on her way to her second Summer Olympics where she will contend for her second gold medal as a member of the U.S. sailing team.
Tunnicliffe lives in Plantation and trains in Fort Lauderdale and Miami — when she’s not roaming the world competing in races. Among the South Florida athletes who have qualified for the July 27-Aug. 12 London Olympics, Tunnicliffe is the most dominant in her sport.
She’s happiest when she is on the water, in a boat, reading the wind with the same interpretive mastery as a translator of Homer.
“Every time I go out it’s different,” she said. “No two waves are identical. No two puffs of wind are identical. I feel free, not constricted by society. It’s just me and Mother Nature.”Always on the go
Tunnicliffe, once a reluctant sailor, is married to a sailor, Brad Funk, who narrowly missed making the U.S. Olympic team. Her dearest friends are sailors. Her life is a constant search for better breezes.
“I don’t like being in one place for too long,” she said. “When I’m home, after a week I get restless.”
She and Funk measure their wanderlust by the health of their one house plant.
“The plant is usually dead by the time we get back home, and we revive it,” she said. “If we can keep the plant alive, maybe we can get a pet.”
Tunnicliffe, 29, moved from Doncaster, England, at age 12 when her father, who worked for a limestone quarrying company, was transferred to Ohio. She sailed on Lake Erie, and as her skills improved in the summer sunshine she grew passionate about the sport. She graduated from Perrysburg High, where she was an accomplished middle distance runner, and won collegiate titles at Old Dominion University.
Tunnicliffe is a world champion, two-time World Sailor of the Year and four-time U.S. Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year.
She still speaks with a slight British accent but as a U.S. citizen considers herself a Yank through and through.
“I’m psyched to be going to England, but I’m not going home,” she said. “My home is America. I’m a Floridian.
“I want to bring a gold home to America.”
At the sailing venue in Weymouth, skipper Tunnicliffe and her crew, Molly Vandemoer and Debbie Capozzi, will compete in match racing, an event being staged for women for the first time at the Olympics.
Tunnicliffe won Olympic gold at the 2008 Beijing Games in the speedy single-handed Laser Radial class.A new challenge
Then she decided to try match racing, which is head-to-head competition in three-man Elliott 6-meter boats provided at the venue. First one to win six races wins, unlike the typical regatta format where the skipper with the best combination of finishes against the fleet is the victor.
“Second place is no good in match racing,” Tunnicliffe said. “I love the pressure of it. Way more pressure than Laser. It’s also a lot easier for fans to understand.
“It’s a very physical chess game. You’ve got to think three moves ahead, and you’ve got to be strong and fit.”
Match racing dispels stereotypes about the genteel etiquette of sailing. It’s more about get-out-of-my-way than right-of-way. Opponents try to anticipate each other’s tactical maneuvers and trap them into bad positions.
“There is a lot of yelling between boats because it’s aggressive racing,” Tunnicliffe said. “You want to draw a penalty.
“Part of my job is to yell at the umpires to assess penalties, but they usually don’t listen.”
Tunnicliffe, Vandemoer and Capozzi have specific duties that must be performed seamlessly because every second counts.
Tunnicliffe drives the boat while processing information from her crew.
“Anna has a natural feel for what makes a boat go fast,” Capozzi said. “She’s like a quarterback. She wants the ball. She wants to move forward.”
Vandemoer sits in the middle and is in charge of trimming the mainsail and spinnaker downwind and countering the opponent’s tactics upwind.
Capozzi sits in the front, where she handles the jib and evaluates the course situation, distance to the mark and wind speed. Downwind, she attaches the spinnaker.An efficient team
When everything goes right, their teamwork is as fluid and poised as that of the Miami Heat. They knew each other in college and each has been successful in her own right.
“We are three headstrong women who can be a little obnoxious with our sarcastic humor,” Vandemoer said. “Then we flip a switch, and it’s time to go to work. No baloney, no egos. We want to make rational decisions, not emotional ones.
“On land, we can be silly. People say, ‘How do those goofballs even make it around the course?’ ”
Said Tunnicliffe: “On the water, we respect each other. On land, we’re the best of friends.”
The four-year Olympic campaign cost $400,000. They spent most of the first year raising money. They are used to earning their own way. Tunnicliffe worked at an antiques store in high school to help pay for equipment and trips. In college, she worked as a gym monitor.
She thrives on challenges.
“She is by far the fittest woman in the Southeast U.S.,” said Brad Tobias, Tunnicliffe’s coach at CrossFit Coral Gables. “I can’t compare her work ethic to any other person.”
Tunnicliffe always has been a fitness fiend. It runs in the family — her mother runs marathons, her brother does ultra-distance events and her father still sails. Her punishing Crossfit regimen has increased her strength, which is apparent when you see her ripped stomach muscles. Core and shoulder strength is essential to her role as skipper.
“She can deadlift 275 pounds,” Tobias said. “She beats all the guys at pullups.”
The extra muscle helps Tunnicliffe and her teammates reach the maximum weight of 450 pounds for their event; more weight counters the wind.Competitive family
Tunnicliffe wants to compete in the CrossFit Games in 2013. In 2008, her mother registered her for a half Ironman triathlon six weeks after the Olympics. She finished second in 5:20. Her goals include racing America’s Cup and perhaps the Volvo around-the-world race.
“Women’s sailing is progressing,” she said. “But it’s tough to make a living.”
On the rare occasions when Tunnicliffe relaxes, she likes to play the cello, as she has since age 6. Or she goes windsurfing with her husband.
“But then it gets competitive,” she said with a smile.
As a girl, she used to sail the coasts of England and Scotland with her parents. She resisted taking the tiller.
Now she can’t take her hands off it. She sees another gold medal on the horizon.