Ask Tunnicliffe where she’s from, and she’ll say, “Ohio.” Ask where’s her home now, and she’ll say Florida. Ignore the underpinnings of a British accent. That she will sail for the United States next month in the Olympic Games, and that those Olympic Games will be held in London — just three hours south of Doncaster, the English city in which Tunnicliffe was born — is mere coincidence.
“It’s a non-issue,” said Mitch Brindley, Tunnicliffe’s sailing coach at Old Dominion University.
“She is by far the biggest American fan and athlete, probably, that the U.S. team could have,” said fellow Olympic sailor Debbie Capozzi.
What’s important is this: Tunnicliffe, 29, is already an Olympic gold medalist — an American Olympic gold medalist — in one sailing discipline: Laser Radial, a solo endeavor. In London, at what likely will be a raucous venue that is already sold out, she will be one of America’s best hopes in a new discipline: women’s match racing, in which she will join two teammates in trying to win another gold.
“We can’t think about the end result,” Tunnicliffe said.
Her teammates are a former college teammate at Old Dominion, Capozzi, and a former college rival, Molly Vandemoer. Their mission in London is to compete against 12 other teams in one-on-one, first-to-the-finish races. The eight teams with the best records move on to the quarterfinals, and from there, it’s single-elimination.
“I love the pressure of it,” Tunnicliffe said.
She says this just more than a decade after she arrived at Old Dominion, still something of a sailing novice. She began sailing in England but, by her own admission, “hated the sport.”
“The squad I was on in England was really good — and I wasn’t,” she said. “It was cold. It was miserable.”
After her father, who worked for a limestone company, was transferred from England to Ohio when Anna was 12, she grew up in Perrysburg, just outside Toledo. It would seem an odd place to breed a sailing champion, but the Tunnicliffes joined the North Cape Yacht Club, just over the Michigan border, and Anna took to the waters of Lake Erie. There, she grew to love the sport, even though she had no idea it would be her future. In high school, she ran track and cross-country. Sailing was just another option.
“To be honest,” she said, “I wasn’t very good until I got to college.”
Old Dominion is perhaps the premier college sailing program in the country. The Norfolk school has won 15 sailing national championships, and the women have qualified for 12 of the past 13 national championship regattas. Brindley, the coach for the past 17 seasons, not only recruits elite athletes from sailing hotbeds on the East Coast, but he takes pride in finding sailors from under rocks where others might not look.
“What I’d noticed about Anna was she had a lot of competition in a variety of different boats,” Brindley said. “And she was clearly a really good and motivated athlete with kind of a broad-based experience. Plus, she was a smart, intelligent girl, too. You knew she could work hard and learn and be a great student of the sport.”
At ODU, Tunnicliffe flourished. She developed as a sailor, earning women’s all-American honors as a sophomore, junior and senior and co-ed all-American honors as a senior, the year in which she was also named the nation’s top female sailor. She helped the Monarchs to four national championships. Along with the rest of her family, she became a U.S. citizen. She met the man who became her husband, fellow sailor Brad Funk. And she became a clear contender for the 2008 Beijing Games in the Laser Radial class.
“A lot of people didn’t think she was the favorite to win the trials,” said Brindley, who served as her personal coach for those Olympics. “But we knew when she got to the Games she had what it took to contend.”
So much so, she won the gold. Three weeks later, she followed through on a promise she had made to herself: win the Olympic gold and have the Olympic rings tattooed on her ankle. They are there now, as she approaches her second Games under much different circumstances. She could have continued to race by herself, but there was an appeal in a new challenge, match racing.
“It took a lot of compromise,” Tunnicliffe said. “I had to learn how to deal with teammates. It wasn’t always about myself.”
The reason it has worked to this point, according to all involved, is that Tunnicliffe, Capozzi and Vandemoer get along famously on shore as well as off it, an essential dynamic given the time spent together. And there is this: Tunnicliffe, it turns out, is an excellent skipper.
“She’s just really, really good at knowing what the boat needs, making the boat go fast,” Capozzi said. “When you have somebody who can steer a boat really fast, then 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. If we’re slow, it’s not going to happen.”
Because she is fast, and because she will be in England, she will again attract attention. In 2008, members of the British media pressed her for what more than one story called the “renouncing” of her citizenship. Her response then was the same as it is now.
“I’m sure there’ll be the same shenanigans pulled this time,” she said. “But it doesn’t really matter what’s said. I’m competing for America, and I want to win for America.”