12 in '12: London hopeful Tunnicliffe

By Brandon Penny | Aug. 03, 2010, 12:58 p.m. (ET)

The 12 in ’12 series celebrates the fact that the London 2012 Olympic Games are just two years away.  The series previews 12 athletes who have proven themselves as true competitors in past Games and look to win medals for Team USA in London. The fifth part of the series features gold medalist sailor from Beijing, Anna Tunnicliffe.


Olympic gold medalist.  ISAF World Sailor of the Year.  Ranked second in World Cup standings.

Anna Tunnicliffe made history two years ago when she won Laser Radial gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, becoming the first U.S. woman to bring home sailing gold in 20 years.  Last year, Tunnicliffe did something that most sailors would never dream of doing when she switched to a different sailing class.  Despite the bold move, Tunnicliffe’s boat is currently ranked second in the World Cup standings, and odds of winning a second gold medal in London look good, this time in women’s match racing.

Athletic Beginnings

Anna Tunnicliffe was born in Doncaster, England, where she was an athletic child right from the get-go.  As a kid, she was swimming, playing soccer, dancing and playing the cello.  Tunnicliffe also learned to sail when she was young, by watching her parents on their boat.

Although she excelled at most activities she took up, Tunnicliffe eventually realized that her calling lied in sailing.

“My parents never forced me to race, I chose to race.” Tunnicliffe said.  “I am very competitive as is my family.  I chose to stick to sailing because that’s what I dreamed of going to the Olympics in at age 12.”

When Tunnicliffe was 12, her family moved to Perrysburg, Ohio.  Tunnicliffe’s mother found her a yacht club there so she would be able to continue sailing competitively.

“I wasn’t nervous that I would stop sailing,” Tunnicliffe said.  “I was nervous that I was coming to such a big country.”

On the contrary, she did not have much trouble adjusting to life in the United States, nor did she have trouble finding sailing success in such a large country.  At the age of 13, she helmed a team at the Rolex Women’s International Keelboat Regatta.  To this day, Tunnicliffe is still the youngest helm on record for this regatta.  She said she has her parents to thank for accomplishing this incredible feat at such a young age.

“I think having my parents support in the event made it possible,” Tunnucliffe said.  “We came across it somehow, and my mum  thought it would be a great idea to put a team together from our club and go to it.  I was asked to helm, and I said yes.  They did all the organization since I was in school.”

Tunnicliffe chose to go to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., specifically for their sailing program.  She said she had an impressive senior class that she was able to learn from when she was a freshman.  Old Dominion provided her with plenty of experience and multiple national titles.

“They graduated, and left spots open for me to sail,” Tunnicliffe said.  “From the spring season my sophomore year through the end of my senior year, I sailed almost every weekend.  It was a great opportunity to sail all of the time and work on the whole game of racing.”


Olympic Dreams Coming True

In 2003, Tunnicliffe competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in an attempt to fulfill her Olympic dreams at the age of 21. 

“It was a long shot for sure,” Tunnicliffe said.  “I had never sailed the boat save three weeks of practice before the event.  My main goal for the event was to learn how the trials work and to get the experience.”

She gained even more experience and, surprisingly, managed to finish in fourth place in the Europe dinghy.  However, only one U.S. boat can go to the Olympic Games in each class so Tunnicliffe would have to put her Olympic dreams on hold for four more years.

She spent those four years honing in on her craft and learning to become the best in the world.

“She’s as dedicated as any athlete I’ve ever met,” said Dean Brenner, Chairman of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program.  “She’s the fittest athlete we have on our team.  She’s very professional, thorough and diligent in her approach to her sailing.  I think the level of dedication is as good as I’ve ever seen.”

Brenner became the chairman of the program in 2004 and began working with Tunnicliffe the following year.

Tunnicliffe reached her goal in 2008 when she won at U.S. Olympic Trials and made it to the Beijing Games to compete in Laser Radial.  Brenner was the team leader for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team at those Games where he got to know her even better.

His roommate in China was Tunnicliffe’s coach so Brenner said he was a fly on the wall for most of their meetings and was able to observe what made Tunnicliffe so special.

“She’s got the attitude of a champion,” Brenner said.  “Really confident in her abilities, if she gets rattled she never shows it.  She knows she’s prepared, she knows she’s talented.  She just lets her preparation and her talent take over.  I would actually say she’s a conservative sailor because she doesn’t take massive risk on the race course because she knows she doesn’t have to, because she’s prepared, she’s thorough, she’s fit.  She’s done all the things prior to the racing that she needs to do.”

Tunnicliffe had done everything she needed to before the 2008 Olympic Games and it all paid off.  She won the gold medal in her event.

“That was my goal for the previous four years of my life,” Tunnicliffe said.  “I worked hard to get there, and I knew that I could do it if I sailed a good regatta, then I would be able to bring home the gold.”

Bringing home the gold made Tunnicliffe the first woman in 20 years to win Olympic sailing gold for the United States.

“I was very proud,” Tunnicliffe said.  “I didn’t realize that it was that long since we won the gold, so when I found out I was even more excited.”

“She earned that gold medal,” Brenner added.


Olympic Dream Lives On

Tunnicliffe’s intense athletic spirit lived on after her gold medal performance in Beijing and immediately upon returning from those Games she began training for a triathlon.

“I had to drop some weight for the Games, and thought this was a good way to force myself to do it,” Tunnicliffe said.  “Also, it gave me a distraction from the sailing.  I had been doing some training before the Games, but then started the hard training after the Games.”

As she does with everything she puts her mind to, Tunnicliffe surpassed her goals and proved that it really is possible to be good at everything you do.  She beat her goal time by thirty minutes at her first triathlon.

In 2009, Tunnicliffe received the highest honor that could be bestowed upon a sailor when she was named ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year.

“I didn’t expect it,” Tunnicliffe said.  “There are so many good people sailing these days, and the list of nominees was extremely good, so I was very surprised to win it.  I was overjoyed.  It was a fantastic award for all of the hard work I have been putting in.”

That year, Tunnicliffe continued to work harder than ever and remained number one in the world for Laser Radial sailing.  But dominating one sailing class must not have been enough for Tunnicliffe, who made a bold move that year.  While the vast majority of sailors only ever compete in one sailing class in their careers, Tunnicliffe decided to take on a new challenge: match racing.

“I still have a lot to learn in the radial, but match racing is a new challenge,” Tunnicliffe said.  “match racing is like chess on the water.  There is so much going on. You have to put yourself ahead and in control of the other boat using the rules, the wind and your boathandling.  It’s a lot of fun.”

Laser Radial was chosen as the Olympic class for singlehanded women at the 2008 Games for the first time, meaning Tunnicliffe was the first to win gold in the event.  Match racing will take the place of fleet racing for the first time at the 2012 Games so Tunnicliffe could easily be among the first to medal in that class as well.

“It’s really not surprising that she’s taken another challenge on,” Brenner said.  “And it is an entirely different challenge because it’s a totally different type of racing, it’s a totally different type of boat.  She goes from sailing singlehanded to having two other teammates on the boat with her, so it is an entirely new challenge for sure.”

Those two other teammates are Debbie Capozzi and Molly Vandemoer.  Both women come with a long list of their own sailing accolades.  Capozzi came in fourth at the 2008 World Championships and seventh at the 2008 Olympic Games in fleet racing, and Vandemoer’s women’s 470 team won the 2008 National Championships.

Tunnicliffe quickly adapted to match racing.  Team Tunnicliffe sailed away from the XII International Women’s Match Race Criterium in first place this past April.  After six World Cup events this year, the team is currently ranked second, only one point behind the top team from Great Britain.  The seventh and final World Cup, Sail for Gold, begins Aug. 9.  This regatta is especially important because it is being held at the London Olympic venue in Weymouth, England.

“It wasn’t all that long ago that Anna was number one in the world in the radial,” Brenner said.  “So she switches classes and she rockets right back up to the top of the international rankings.  It’s pretty impressive.”

Tunnicliffe said she and her crew studied the game and learned as much as they could from the beginning, which has helped them to progress as quickly as they have.

She continues to race competitively in laser radial for fun and placed seventh at last month’s 2010 ISAF Laser Radial World Championships.  While she has found time to excel in both classes, Tunnicliffe knows that her campaign for the 2012 Games will be in match racing and that is something she thinks about often.

“Every day I think about London,” Tunnicliffe said.  “But I know that I can’t just think about the end, I have to think about the steps that it’s going to take to get me there.  It’s what drives me to do my workouts or do an extra hour of practice if I’m getting tired.”

Team Tunnicliffe has a long road ahead if it wants to succeed in London, including qualifying for the one Olympic spot the U.S. gets in match racing.  But if they do qualify, all eyes will be on Tunnicliffe to make history yet again.

“Assuming they qualify and win the spot, I expect that they’ll be a serious competitor for a gold medal,” Brenner said.  “They’re that good, and they’re doing all the right things.”

Tunnicliffe herself has that same word on her mind: gold.  She agreed that gold is their main objective and said everything her team does over the next two years will be a stepping stone to that goal.  But if sailing’s golden girl does not find victory again in London, she would just be happy to have the support of her nation watching Team Tunnicliffe.

“Match racing is an exciting discipline of sailing and easy to follow,” Tunnicliffe said.  “It will be a good and easy way to learn about the sport and it is a discipline that we should do quite well in.  Having the USA following us would be amazing.  We were once the sailing nation and I want to get back to that point.”

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