Friends combine forces for Olympics

Richard Langdon/US Sailing

The Tunnicliffe-Capozzi-Vandermoer trio qualified as top U.S. boat at the Olympic trials in England.

It seemed like a fun idea four years ago, something that hatched organically out of casual conversations between three women who had been friends since college. Wouldn't it be amazing to try to win the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics by sailing as a team?

World renowned American sailors Anna Tunnicliffe, Debbie Capozzi and Molly Vandermoer decided putting in nearly four years of hard work, globe-trotting and praying for good fortune would indeed be an incredible adventure.

Now, they are one step away from reaching their goal, as they qualified as top U.S. boat in the recent Olympic trials in Weymouth, England. The Olympic regatta will be from July 27-Aug. 12 in Weymouth, which is about 120 miles southwest of London.

"I'm really having it sink in, that we are going to the Olympics, we are going to have a shot at the gold medal, it's fantastic," said Capozzi, 28, who serves as a tactician/crew on the three-person boat. "It's been the goal for so long, it seems like we've been going hard at this for like 3½ years, and now it's here. It shows our strength, how we've grown on and off the water together. It's been a grind, but a good grind. We can see the finish line now, and we're going to go for the gold."

Tunnicliffe and Capozzi have Olympic regatta experience after competing in the 2008 Beijing Games. Tunnicliffe won gold in laser radial and Capozzi's team finished seventh in Yngling. This will be Vandermoer's first Olympics.

The three have known each other since college, with Tunnicliffe and Capozzi attending Old Dominion and Vandermoer sailing for Hawaii at Manoa. They quickly recognized each other's talents, and their personalities also seemed to fit together. Events between the schools didn't happen often because of distance, but when they did, Tunnicliffe and Capozzi enjoyed facing off against Vandermoer. All three won national championships and decided to make sailing their lives after college.

"I've always had so much respect for Anna and Debbie, because you took one look at them on the water and you could see how good they were," said Vandermoer, 30, a tactician/crewmate. "They're the kind of sailors you love to watch."

Their careers have intertwined as all three crewed or helmed different craft. Tunnicliffe, in particular, has soared to sailing stardom, thanks to her Olympic gold and awards. She was named U.S. Sailing's Rolex Yachtswoman and ISAF's World Sailor of the year for 2011-12.

But the question lingered at the start of their campaign launch: How do you translate strong friendships into effective sailing? Some warned their relationships would be put to the test, or even damaged. The three women, each very accustomed to being at the helm, might have to find a way to compromise in the heat of racing.

Learning how to make good decisions together, without ego or bruised feelings, required a learning curve. Tunnicliffe, in particular, needed to learn how to rely on her crewmates and when to make the final decision at the helm.

"I've grown a lot as a sailor since the last Olympics, and learning how to make the shift from laser [where she sailed solo] to having Debbie and Molly with me has been a good process," said Tunnicliffe, 29. "You have to have a mix of patience and being open to all ideas and tactics, but also knowing when you have to make the decision and go. We all bring different thoughts to the table during a race; it's a matter of pouncing on the right one at the right time. It doesn't matter who has the idea, we all have to execute it."

The women have worked their way into a good mesh of different roles: Tunnicliffe is the alpha, both because of her confidence and personality; Capozzi knows when to crack a joke or make a sarcastic comment to lighten the mood; and Vandermoer, nicknamed "Mother Molly" by the other two, knows how to read moods and be a facilitator to reach consensus.

There's a good system in place off the water, too. They push each other to keep up with cardio and core training off the boat through a handy system, they joke, of two-on-one motivation on days when staying in bed for an extra hour sounds heavenly.

Tunnicliffe is in demand with the media, especially leading up to the Olympics. She was born in England and moved to Perrysburg, Ohio, with her family when she was 12. She became a U.S. citizen in 2003 but is still fielding questions as to which country she really calls home.

(For the record, Tunnicliffe tells people, in her muddled American-English accent, to check the flag on her sail if they need to know her preferred nationality.)

Because the various interviews and commitments for team promotion take time, Capozzi and Vandermoer will take on some of the less glamorous upkeep duties on the boat, such as packing the sails, to free Tunnicliffe. They're all doing their part, with the whole in mind.

The trio can't pick a time or place where things began to seamlessly integrate. It just happened, underpinned by their friendships deepening. And as the relationships strengthened, so did the team. They're ranked No. 1 in the world and will be the team to beat going into London.

"I think that's really been the asset for us learning how to really sail as a team, is that we had that base of friendship to draw on," Vandermoer said. "I never felt worried that this wasn't going to work out because of a personality clash or whatever. We're all pretty much in sync before as people, and now, we're even more so because of our team."

They don't mind the togetherness, but having some time apart, to lead their own lives scattered across the country, is a precious thing. They've planned their training and sailing competition schedules to have three weeks together and one week off each month. But for the next 3½½ months through the Olympics, it will be all-in training around Weymouth.

Vandermoer and Tunnicliffe credit their husbands, who are also both accomplished sailors, for being very understanding about their unforgiving schedules. Capozzi feels the same about her family and friends, who understand she and her team are working to reach their Olympic goal.

"You really do sacrifice a lot to be the best, but we feel it is worth it because we are all chasing that dream together," Tunnicliffe said. "But I can tell you, from experience, there is nothing like seeing your flag raised, hearing the anthem and getting that gold medal put around your neck. You get chills, and you feel like you are floating. That's why we're doing this. And I can't imagine anything more special than to be able to try to win the Olympics with your friends."

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