Riley Gibbs and Anna Weis celebrate winning gold at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 9, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Anna Weis altered her life plans pretty significantly when she decided to take a break from college and pursue her Olympic sailing dream for 2020 instead of 2024.
Then, she had another big change after she and partner Riley Gibbs became the first U.S. sailing team to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in February, competing in the Nacra 17 class, only to have the Games postponed until 2021 because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
A shift in the timetable isn’t always a bad thing, however, and for the still-new team of Weis and Gibbs it could even work to their advantage.
“In a general sense I feel like for us it’s only a positive coming out of this,” said Weis, 22. “I think this is lucky for us, if I’m going to be fully honest.”
Weis has been sailing since her parents moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and she started an intro to sailing program at the nearby Lauderdale Yacht Club at the age of 7. She loved being on the water and the friends that she made through the sport, and then when she was 10 she started to race.
Her Olympic dream began to take shape in 2008 after Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias, who also sailed out of Fort Lauderdale, came to the club with her Olympic gold medal. Weis still has the photo they took together. After Weis entered high school, she said, she really started to work hard and get results and started thinking about her own Olympic potential.
In 2016, Weis won the U.S. singlehanded women’s championships, and went from there to the laser radial youth world championships in Ireland. Although she finished eighth, she called it a pivotal moment in her career.
“That was a huge milestone for me because, although the results don’t show it on paper, the way I was sailing I realized that if I keep going, keep working hard, I think I could achieve something,” she said. “Honestly, from that moment on I was more motivated than ever because even though I didn’t get the result I wanted it made me hungry for more.”
Weis graduated from high school and went on to Boston University, ready to sail and thinking about launching an Olympic campaign for 2024.
After sailing for two semesters, however, she made what some would consider a surprising decision to leave the sailing team and join the rowing team as a walk-on in order to better serve her Olympic dream.
“A lot of factors went into it, but it was really the best thing for me,” she said. “I knew I wanted to pursue the Olympic path after graduating and I knew I wasn’t staying fit enough, and the goals I had didn’t go in line with college sailing in general, just for me personally. Others would say different. But I wanted to push myself in a way that I wasn’t really familiar with and I guess that was rowing.”
The things she learned her first year rowing — teamwork, especially after competing so many years as a solo athlete, as well as learning a new sport, patience, mental toughness and the importance of showing up each day to put in the work whether you want to or not — prepared for what was to come, even if she didn’t know it at the time.
As a sophomore in 2017-18 she sat in the six seat of the second varsity eight boat that won silver at the Patriot League Championship, but then she got a phone call from Gibbs, a friend she knew from sailing in high school who also had an Olympic dream. He thought they’d make good partners sailing the Nacra 17, a performance catamaran with a crew of two, and wanted to know if she’d be interested in taking a break from school to launch a 2020 campaign.
“I thought it would be an amazing opportunity and I would have regretted it if I didn’t take it,” Weis said. “And I knew school would always be there. At the time it was only going to be a year and a half off. Now it’s a little more. But it was this amazing opportunity so I said yes.”
Weis and Gibbs started sailing together in January 2019, and Gibbs’ intuition was right. He was patient and helped Weis learn, she said, despite not knowing anything about foiling, double-handed sailing, the trapeze system or anything else about the boat. They also struck the right balance together between being goofy and having fun while at the same time handling the time crunch of Olympic qualification.
A couple months into their partnership, however, they had to deal with a pretty big wrench in their training and development. Weis was diagnosed with exertional compartment syndrome, which basically meant her muscles in her arms had no more space and were compressing her nerves, causing her to lose feeling in her hands.
“My whole job is holding the sail, so that turned to be a problem because I couldn’t grip anything,” she said.
Weis had no choice but to have surgery on both arms about a year ago. Eight weeks later she and Gibbs were on their way to the Pan American Games having only been back on the water together for about a week. They not only won the gold medal but also earned an Olympic quota spot for the U.S.
Six months later, and just over a year since sailing together for the first time, Weis and Gibbs, 23, became the first U.S. sailors to qualify for Tokyo. They entered the 2020 world championships in Geelong, Australia, with a nine-point lead over Sarah Newberry and David Liebenberg in the U.S. team selection trials and locked down their spots with a 17th place overall finish.
“There were waves of feelings,” Weis said. “The first was relief. The second wave of feeling was pretty emotional because it hits you a bit. The third feeling was excitement and happiness and we just couldn’t believe it. Every emotion you could possibly feel I think we felt that day.”
Now Weis and Gibbs have a long wait ahead of them before the Olympics become a reality, but for a team still relatively new to sailing together that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With U.S. Sailing committed to those athletes who have already qualified, they can now focus on getting even more experience together and use the unexpected time to prepare as much as possible.
“To have this whole extra year for us as a team, we’re so fortunate because from day one we had sailed two or three weeks then it was right into competing,” she said. “Basically the whole campaign was regatta after regatta after regatta. Now that we’ve qualified the world is kind of our oyster. We can take advantage of this next year and anything we do is going to be a bonus. It’s going to be a super fun year learning. That’s our mindset and we’re pretty excited for it.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.