When Anna Tobias announced her retirement from Olympic-level sailing in 2014, the passion for competing at the highest level was gone.
Now, 11 years after winning a gold medal in her Olympic debut, Tobias (née Tunnicliffe) is back on the water and hoping to win her second gold medal at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“It would be amazing,” said Tobias, 36, one of the many impressive Women of Team USA being celebrated this week. “I would probably again feel relieved that it happened, but I think it’s kind of, you put so much of your life and effort and sweat and tears into it that it would just be the icing on the cake if all the hard work paid off.”
Tobias was born in England but moved to Perrysburg, Ohio, at the age of 12. Sailing was a family pastime, and she honed her skills on the waters of Lake Erie before enrolling in college at Old Dominion to further her passion. Tobias sailed the Laser Radial, a one-person dinghy, and it was in that class that she won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008. As Laser Radial made its Olympic debut that year, Tunnicliffe was the first gold medalist in the event. She was named ISAF World Sailor of the Year in 2009 and 2011, and owns six world championship medals.
She returned to the Olympics in 2012, this time as the skipper of a three-person crew that included Molly Vandemoer and Debbie Capozzi in the Elliott 6-meter class. They were favored to medal that year as well but were knocked out in the quarterfinals and finished in fifth place.
“After 2012 I was super keen to get going again, then I just lost the fire you needed to commit to being on the road that much and train that much,” she said. “I just needed a distraction for a few years.”
She found it in the form of CrossFit.
She’d started the training regimen, which combines elements of weightlifting, gymnastics, cardiovascular strength and endurance, in 2012. In 2013, she made her first of what would be five consecutive appearances at the CrossFit Games, the international multiple-day competition that puts athletes through different rounds of grueling physical tests. The winners are deemed the fittest people on the planet.
Over the years Tobias did a bit of sailing on the professional circuit, as well as some coaching, but she was happy having her competitive fires stoked through CrossFit.
Every so often someone from US Sailing would bring up the possibility of a return and throw some options her way, Tobias said, but nothing struck a chord.
Until, that is, they floated the idea of her coming back not as a skipper but as crew in the two-person 49erFX high-performance skiff.
“There were very few things I would come back for, but one of them was crewing the 49erFX,” she said. “Of all the boats, I’d say for crew it’s probably the most difficult and physically demanding, and to me that sounded like the most fun. I felt like it would be fun to crew because I grew up as a driver, as a skipper, and I’d never really crewed, so I thought it would be fun to learn the position. And then I could use the last five years of CrossFit in the physical side of it and be able to be as fit as possible for that boat.”
It had to be with the right skipper, though. In November 2017 she sailed for the first time with Paris Henken, 23, who competed at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 in 49erFX. Tobias said initially she wondered how well they’d mesh given the age difference, but they got along very well. They competed at the Sailing World Cup stop in Miami in January 2018, finished 13th overall and the next month they committed to partnering for an Olympic run.
“We both have different strengths we bring to the boat,” Tobias said. “She grew up skipping, and she’s naturally talented in the boat. She’s also very laid back, and that’s kind of my style, too. We just kind of clicked."
Tobias has been based out of Pittsburgh for several years now but spends half of each month on the road training and sailing. She’s still learning the intricacies of crewing every day, she said, from simple things like footwork to how to communicate something to Henken.
“It’s very different,” she said. “I had a lot of respect for my crew in the past, but I have a whole new respect now.”
She’s also learning to cede some of the control that comes with being the skipper, something that she admits can be a struggle but is much easier with Henken in charge. They’ve only had two big races together since joining forces, but they have three major events coming up in the next two months — the Princess Sofia Regatta in Spain, a world cup stop in Genoa, Italy, and the European championships at the site of the 2012 Olympic Games in England.
The actual Olympic qualification process involves a number of “if, then” scenarios and different tiers, the likes of which Tobias said even she can’t explain at this point. She just knows their focus is on doing everything they can to win the gold medal in Tokyo.
After winning her first gold as a solo sailor, she looks forward to the possibility of doing it as part of a duo.
“We were medal favorites going into London and it would have been amazing to share that with (Vandemoer) and (Capozzi), and it pretty much broke my heart that we didn’t get it,” she said. “Here’s my chance to do it again, not with those two, but to be able to share that with (Henken) would be awesome.”