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Anna Tunnicliffe, Zach Railey sail towards repeat Olympic success


Sailing often tends to get lost in the smorgasbord of Olympic sports, often because the venue is so hard to find. Choosing a suitable sailing venue is so difficult that the competition is often held away from the main host city or sometimes even the host country. Even the sport itself used to be known in Olympic parlance as yachting rather than sailing.

The events this summer will be held not in London, but in Weymouth, which is southwest of London. Four years ago, sailing took place not in Beijing but in Qingdao. In the U.S., Olympic sailing competitions took place in Long Beach and Savannah, instead of Los Angeles and Atlanta. During the 1980 Moscow Games, sailing took place in what is now Estonia's capital city of Tallinn; if anyone ever asks if an Estonian city ever hosted the Olympics, well, you have your answer.

At the Olympics four years ago, two U.S. sailors brought home medals and their chances are strong to get back on the podium again this summer. Here is a look at both of them:

The accent is unmistakable -- Tunnicliffe will fit right in when she returns to her birth country to sail for another Olympic title in a new event. Yet she'll be quick to tell you it isn't the country of her heart. "I'm an American," she says. "These Olympics will be meaningful for me, but that would be true anywhere."

Tunnicliffe was born in Doncaster, UK, but her family moved to Ohio when she was 12. Unlike what one may think, she was not a born sailor. "I hated sailing when I was in England," she says. "I was cold. I didn't like the sport." But that all changed when she started winning. It was a way for her to stand out, even in a competitive family.

Tunnicliffe took part in some local regattas and slowly gained acclaim. She doesn't recall the exact age when she told her parents she was going to win an Olympic gold medal, but the bold pronouncement fit right in. "I pictured it," she says. "I just told my mom and dad, 'Yeah, that'll be me some day.'"

In 2008, Tunnicliffe competed in the laser radial class, a solo event in a single-handed dinghy, calculated over a series of ten races in which sailors could drop their worst result. Though she never finished first in any of the races -- actually nine of, them since one was canceled because of bad weather -- the worst finish that counted was sixth. Every other sailor counted points for at least one finish outside the top ten. On the final day, Tunnicliffe was perilously close to a low finish, when she made a bold decision near the end of the race that secured her victory.

"I took a risk," she recalls. "All my competitors went to the right. It made sense, but if I followed them, I wasn't going to catch people. I got lucky. I went left and caught a soft wind." Tunnicliffe passed enough sailors to secure the points she needed to hold onto first place. "It was a blur," she says. "I remember walking out there seeing my mom crying. I don't think she stopped the whole time."

Teammates will say there is always a twinkle of cleverness in Tunnicliffe's eyes. When asked about the Chinese characters tattooed on her left forearm, she says "It means soy sauce," in perfect deadpan, waiting for you to nod or laugh or wonder whether to believe her. "No, no, it means 'never give up.' I'm sure of it. I did the research."

Tunnicliffe left nothing to chance in case in case the characters really did represent an evening takeout order. And there is a fresh due diligence these days in a new event, the match race in which she competes with two teammates. "It's something new, challenging, completely different," she says. "It's communication, it's confidence in your team. But like other events, it's demanding. You have to have endurance over six days. You have to be able to take control of your boat. The more tired you are, the more mistakes you're going to make." That you can believe.

Railey was a high-energy Florida kid whose parents needed an outlet for his restlessness; his dentist suggested that organized sailing might be a good choice. Railey was hooked. "I just loved being on the water," he says. "Even today, any activity having to do with water, fishing, water skiing, that's what I want to do."

He started out with an eight-foot boat called an optimist, which aptly described Railey at the time. "I was just playing around with 30 eight-year olds and I had no idea what I was doing. I just assumed I'd figure it out."

Railey discovered the Olympics in 1996 and found a calling. "I was watching Michael Johnson running the 200 meters, and man, that just blew me away," he says. "People used to criticize his stride because it wasn't traditional, but he knew exactly what he was doing. I thought that was cool. And he had these gold shoes that would shine when the light hit them. Wow."

Railey wanted to be an Olympian, but when he did his research and checked an alphabetical list of sports, he couldn't find the word sailing. Bummer. He hadn't bothered to keep scanning down to the letter Y to find the alternate name of his childhood passion.

"Two weeks later, I found out it was an Olympic sport called yachting and I was just thrilled," he says. "I called a team meeting with my parents and told them what I wanted to do. They looked at each other, I remember. Then they just told me if I was serious, I'd have to make some choices that were different from what other kids did."

Railey's parents, who both worked in the insurance business, were on board, along with his younger sister, Paige, who was also competing. Railey raced lasers throughout high school, but given his size at the time -- 6'3", 195 pounds -- he switched to the Finn, a single-handed boat that better suited his size. The Finn class solo event has stayed in the Games since 1952 as other boat classifications have come and gone.

Aware of the financial requirements of his sport, Railey studied business at the University of Miami just to learn how to better support himself. He has never made money in any one season in the sport and relies heavily on help from family and sponsors. Under superstition, he wears something from the university each time he sails.

Eyeing his Olympic debut in 2008, he lost 30 pounds from his 220-pound frame to prepare for racing in Qingdao, where the conditions were going to favor lighter boats. "I was on caloric deficit and it was awful," he says. The realization of his goal hit him days before the Games, when he looked at his boat. Typically, when multiple entries from the same country participate at an event, the sailors' national flags are printed next to their numbers on the sails. At the Olympics, with a single entry permitted per country, there is simply one large flag. "You see that and you know it's something special, something different," he says. Though Britain's Ben Ainslie ran off with a decisive victory over the course of the week to capture his third straight Olympic gold medal, Railey, then 23, took a surprise second. "Nobody expected it from me," he says. "Now people are more aware of what I can do."