By Erik Brady, USA TODAY
CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Olympians who win gold medals tend to keep them in safe places, like safety deposit boxes or underwear drawers. Not Anna Tunnicliffe. She takes hers most places she goes.
Ask why and she shows a golden smile. "Why not?" she says. "It's my medal."
Now she wants another, this time in the new Olympic sailing discipline of women's match racing. When Tunnicliffe won the Laser Radial class in Beijing, she became the first American woman to win sailing gold in 20 years - and this summer she could become the first to win a second.
Crewmate Debbie Capozzi says Tunnicliffe's move from a one-woman dinghy to skipper of a three-woman boat "is very hard to do, like going from NASCAR to Indy racing."
And so here she is, smoothly moving through a grueling morning session of CrossFit training at a no-frills, cinderblock gym, firing off rapid sets of pull-ups, shoulder touches and box jumps in gut-wrenching, gym-sprinting sequence. Tunnicliffe shows off rock-hard abs and bulging biceps, looking very much the most-muscled sailor since Popeye.
"We have really long days on the water," she says. "And the windier it gets the more fit you have to be, because you have to use your body weight to counter the wind pushing against your sails. This is no booze cruise across the bay."
She says this with the unmistakable lilt of a leftover British accent; Tunnicliffe, 29, was born in England and moved to the United States with her family at 12, in the mid-1990s.
"Can't do anything about the accent, unfortunately," she says. "I've tried to not talk funny, believe me."
Why? Americans love British accents.
"Yeah, I've noticed," she says. "Why is that?"
She wants one fact stipulated up front: She is American. She went to high school in Ohio, attended college in Virginia and lives in Florida. She got her citizenship in 2003 specifically so she could compete for the U.S. in the Olympics. Yes, she'll be in the nation of her birth at these Games. But, no, it is not in any sense home for her, not even a second home.
"I'm going to England, but I have an American passport," Tunnicliffe says. "I have to go through Customs in the American line. Have to get it stamped, have to explain why I'm there. I don't have a British passport. I am not going home at all. I am at home here, in America."
Two hundred years ago, American and British sailors exchanged cannon fire during the War of 1812, caused in part by impressment, a policy under which British ships seized American sailors and pressed them into service of the Royal Navy.
When Tunnicliffe struck gold in Beijing, some Brits favored a form of impressment. "They like to say, 'We take half your medal because you were born here,' " she says.
The USA leads all countries in Olympic sailing medals with 59; England is second with 50. The Brits lead all countries with 25 sailing gold medals; the Americans are second with 19.
"They sail everywhere in England, to be honest," Tunnicliffe says. "Find a little puddle and they'll go sailing. That's why they're so good at it."
Chess on water
Tunnicliffe doesn't go sailing for fun, ever. She's tried.
"I'm trained to make a boat go as fast as it can," she says. "So if I'm going out on a cruising boat, I know I'll sit there and, like, try to tweak the trim to make the boat go as fast as possible, when really I should be relaxing."
She took up sailing in England at age 8 - and hated it.
"I was on a youth squad, and the squad was really good and I wasn't," she says. "I was always getting beat. And then when I moved to America, that's where I started doing kind of well, so that's where I started to think, 'This is actually fun. I'm winning.' "
Tunnicliffe's father worked for a European company that transferred him to Ohio to manage a limestone quarry. They settled in the Toledo suburb of Perrysburg, named for Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the War of 1812's Battle of Lake Erie.
"I'm sure we learned a lot about Commodore Perry in Perrysburg," Tunnicliffe says. "But I was never all that good at history."
Turns out she is better at making it. She could have defended her Olympic title in the Laser Radial class but chose match racing, in which boats race one on one, because she likes the mind games.
"Like a chess game on water," Tunnicliffe says. "You're trying to trick your opposition into a bad position so you can win the race. Don't get me wrong - I do miss the Laser. It's a very fun boat, very physical, more to my style of fitness. But mentally, it was a slower race. And I like the challenge of a fast-paced race, mentally."
Fitness comes into play there, too. "When you're tired," she says, "you don't make good decisions."
Life was simpler in the one-woman dinghy. Now she is skipper for Molly Vandemoer and Capozzi. That, Tunnicliffe finds, requires the art of compromise.
"When you do your own program, you do what you want when you want," she says. "Now there are three of us who are all very much princesses in our own right. So we all want it our own way."
The partnership works, Capozzi says, "because all of us get along so well, on the water and off."
There would be more pressure as a defending champion, Tunnicliffe says, if she'd stayed with the Laser. Even so, she and her mates are among the favorites in match racing. They won silver behind their Finnish training partners at the world championships in June.
The trio has spent a great deal of time in England this year, learning the wind and the currents of the Olympic courses at Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour.
"We know the water and we're practically locals in the town," Tunnicliffe says. "People in the grocery store know who we are now."
How often does that happen in the U.S.? "Never," she says, laughing.
At home on a boat
Tunnicliffe remembers watching the 1996 Atlanta Games on TV and telling her parents that she'd win a gold medal some day. She was watching track, "but must have been thinking about sailing," she says, "because I wasn't running track yet."
She was a good miler at Perrysburg High School and drew interest from college track recruiters but chose Old Dominion University for its nationally renowned sailing program. There she met Capozzi, her future Olympic mate - and Brad Funk, her future husband. He was a star senior sailor during her freshman year.
"The first time I saw her, I turned to my friend and said, 'I'm going to marry that girl,' " Funk says. "There was something about her that struck me right away. Her energy is very powerful."
They were married in 2008 at a Catholic church, then went to beach restaurant for lunch and traveled by boat to a reception in his parents' backyard.
"That's our style," Tunnicliffe says. "The water and the beach, flip flops and sunglasses, tank tops and shorts. That's the way we live. But I kept the wedding dress on all day, even in the boat. I was a good bride."
She didn't take her medal to the wedding and she doesn't take it to the gym or onboard as she sails. "But I take it most everywhere else," she says. "I keep it in my backpack. It's with me always if I'm going on a trip. That way, if I see a kid, I can show them the medal and inspire them a little."
"It's one thing to say, 'I met an Olympian.' It's another if you can show them the medal. I know for me, if I was a kid and saw one, I'd say, 'Holy smokes! That's so cool!' So that's the reason, really."
When she won that medal, Tunnicliffe recalls seeing an American flag "kind of flying in the light breeze" and "being so overwhelmed with the whole experience that I felt like I was just floating. And I remember thinking, 'I hope I remember all the words to the national anthem.' "
She remembered every bomb bursting in air, echoes of 1812.
An American flag hangs overhead at her gym. Tunnicliffe draws on it for inspiration.
"The workouts are hard, brutally painful," she says. "But if I just catch the flag out of the corner of my eye, it reminds me what I'm doing this for. Push harder. Keep going. It's just good motivation. It is America, right? And that's who I'm representing, so I want to give all that I can."