DALLAS -- Anna Tunnicliffe was born and raised in England. And she has the British accent to prove it.
“With certain words it comes out,” she acknowledged.
But that does not, she insists, make this summer’s Olympic Games a homecoming.
“I’m American,” said Tunnicliffe, who became a U.S. citizen in 2003 and an Olympic gold medalist five years later. “I’ve spent more than half my life in America. I’m going to England to compete.
“I love the country. But no, I’m not going home.”
In England, where boating remains a popular and passionate pastime, confessions like that have made Tunnicliffe the most famous sailor to abandon the Union Jack for the colonies since the War of 1812. Yet Tunnicliffe’s biggest contribution to the sport may be in helping redefine what it takes to be a sailor.
Where once sailing was thought to be the bastion of people such as Dennis Conner, the pudgy skipper of America’s Cup fame — or Alan Hale, the pudgy skipper of “Gilligan’s Island” fame — Tunnicliffe represents a new reality: sailors who are both fast and fit.
Tunnicliffe, a swimmer and record-setting middle-distance runner in high school, turned down more traditional athletic scholarship offers to attend Old Dominion, which has a sailing program.
“There’s a lot of sailors — besides just myself — that have proved you have to be a great athlete. You have to be really strong,” said Tunnicliffe as she sat atop a platform, legs crossed, at last week’s USOC media summit in Dallas. “You’re in a static hold for five minutes up to 25 minutes. And you have to have a lot of strength to do that.
“You have to have endurance to make it through an hourlong race. In our case, we have up to eight races a day. So in addition to the physical side, you have to be mentally strong. And the more physically fit you can be, the easier the mental side is in the sense that you don’t get as tired.”
Sometimes, however, you can get bored. Which is why, two years ago, Tunnicliffe abandoned ship in the laser radial — the single-handed dinghy she had steered to victory in the Beijing Games, becoming the first U.S. women to win gold in sailing in two decades — for the challenge of match racing with a three-woman crew in the Elliott six-meter.
The move paid off this month when Tunnicliffe, Molly Vandemoer and Debbie Capozzi rode to victory in the U.S. Olympic trials in Weymouth and Portland, site of the Olympic regatta.
“It took a lot of compromise,” Tunnicliffe, at 29, the youngest of the three, says of learning how to sail with a crew. “I had to learn how to deal with teammates. It wasn’t always about myself. Fortunately, Debbie and Molly both came from team disciplines. So they brought a lot to the table and taught me very early on what it was like to compromise and deal with it all.”
But then Tunnicliffe has been adapting to change for much of her life.
Born in landlocked Doncaster, in South Yorkshire, England, Tunnicliffe learned to sail on her parents’ yacht. She was 12 when her father, who worked for a company that quarried limestone, moved the family near the shores of Lake Erie to tiny Perrysburg, Ohio, a city named for a naval commodore.
Initially, Tunnicliffe was not amused.
“I don’t think I handled it very well,” she said. “I remember being a huge pain … for my parents the whole time.”
Now, however, she’s thankful.
“I learned to sail actually in England but hated the sport. It was when I started sailing in Lake Erie that I fell in love with the sport,” she said. “The squad that I was on in England was really good and I wasn’t. It was cold. It was miserable.
“In Ohio I sailed June, July and August. It was summer. It was hot. I did quite well. At a young age when you’re winning you really get into it a lot more. I kind of … started to appreciate what sailing was.”
That new affection for sailing carried over to Old Dominion, where she won four national titles and the Quantum award as the nation’s top collegiate female sailor. But for all the hardware she picked up in college, perhaps the two biggest prizes she took home were the U.S. citizenship she earned her sophomore year and the husband she found in fellow Old Dominion sailor Brad Funk, who narrowly missed his own berth in the 2012 Olympics because of equipment failure in last December’s U.S. trials.
But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to completely concede the title of best sailor in the family.
“She’s probably passed me now,” says Funk, who competes in the single-handed laser radial. “She’s a better match racer for sure. I’d say I’m the one who taught her how to make a boat go fast.
“But going fast does not always make you win. Her tactics and her mental prowess and her drive have led her to become very good tactically. And she can also sail by instinct as well. So she plays the balance of that impeccably.’
Tunnicliffe’s circle of college friends was drawn even closer when she and Capozzi, a former ODU teammate, wound up sailing together during this Olympic cycle.
“We’re all in this together, Anna, Molly and I,” Capozzi said. “We do have different backgrounds. Anna’s strength is a natural feel of how to steer a boat really fast.
“She’s just really, really good at knowing what the boat needs. It allows Molly and I to be able to make the decisions that we need to do and position our boat where we want to position it to ensure that we’re going to beat our opponent.”
If they can do that this summer, it would make Tunnicliffe the first U.S. woman to win two gold medals in sailing, which probably won’t go over well in London. After all, the British press, citing her birthplace, tried to claim half the medal she won in Beijing four years ago.
“I’m sure it will be the same shenanigans this time,” said Tunnicliffe, who trains in the waters off Fort Lauderdale and Miami, just south of her home in Plantation, Fla. “But it doesn’t really matter what’s said. I’m competing for America. I want to win for America.”