Shelley Beattie didn't know the America's Cup from the Stanley Cup at this time last year. She was busy preparing for her third season on the TV show American Gladiators. Beattie plays Siren, one of the red-white-and-blue-spandex-clad warriors who regularly knock middle managers, nurses and gym teachers silly in contests such as the Wall, the Gauntlet and the Assault.
Although she knew more about sailing than Beattie did, Dawn Riley also wasn't looking ahead to the America's Cup at this time last year. She was in the middle of the Whitbread Round the World Race, battling 70-knot winds in a hailstorm off the coast of Tasmania. As the skipper of Heineken, Riley was facing contests such as the Tempest, the Snapped Rudder and the Ripped Sail.
Now these two women are in the same boat, crew members on America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•, the first all-female team in the 144-year history of the America's Cup. Also on the team are 26 other athletes, chosen from a pool of 687 applicants. They include Olympic sailors and rowers, a single mom, a newlywed, a NASA microgravity engineer and a college football strength coach, all assembled by Bill Koch, the billionaire yachtsman who skippered America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• to victory in the last America's Cup, in 1992.
On Jan. 13, eight months after they began training, this eclectic group sailed into history when America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• defeated Stars & Stripes in the first race of the defender selection series, which determines the U.S. entry for the America's Cup finals this May. The loser was skippered by Old Glory himself, Dennis Conner, a veteran of six Cup campaigns. Since then, America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• has lost eight of 9 races, and as the second of four round-robins ended last week off Point Loma in San Diego, America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•'s three points placed it a distant third behind Stars & Stripes and PACT 95's Young America, each with nine. But the America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• crew believes that the situation isn't as bad as it looks. Before the end of the month, the women will take delivery of a new $3 million boat, which is expected to be faster than their current hull. Because the scoring system awards a greater number of points for victories in the later rounds, America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• could still come out on top when the defender trials end in April.
How a group of rookies and lifelong sailors came together is a story best illustrated by two people who had nothing in common before this: Beattie and Riley. How did an American Gladiators superhero and a professional sailor, a grinder (the brawn of the boat) and a member of the afterguard (the brains of the boat)—in other words, a novice and an old salt—come to share common ground?
After a recent practice, America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•'s, 75-foot yacht sits in its lift with a huge skirt around its hull. Shelley Beattie appears from behind this curtain. There are streaks of blue paint across her cheeks and forehead and blue specks dotting the bridge of her nose. The bill of her hat is upturned, like a cyclist's, and wisps of light-brown bangs tinged with blue hang over her eyes. She looks as if she has been working under the hood of a car. She and a few other crew members have been wet-sanding the keel of the boat with fine sandpaper. Her hands are as worn as a scuffed baseball.
Here she looks nothing like Siren. When taping for American Gladiators starts in June, she will dye her hair blonde again and add hair extensions. She will put on that star-spangled bodysuit and hang from a bungee cord and body slam some unsuspecting contestant in midair in the Swingshot event and topple some poor sap with something that resembles a giant Q-Tip in the Joust. In fact it was her performance on the show that convinced team coach Kimo Worthington that she deserved a shot at making the crew.
"When I came here, I was worried about what some people on the team would think of me," Beattie says. She was worried about fitting in. Some of her teammates are former Olympic sailors; Beattie is a former Ms. Olympia finalist. What would they make of her biceps, as large as grapefruits, and her thighs, the size of canned hams? What could they have thought when she and her husband, John Romano, wheeled into the parking lot of the San Diego Yacht Club, and the roar of their Harley set off all the car alarms?
There was a greater concern for Beattie: She is 90% deaf, the result of a childhood accident, and, she says, "I didn't want them to treat me as if I'm handicapped." There were communication obstacles that had to be overcome. It was difficult to read lips on the boat, so she asked her teammates to use hand signals. Crew meetings were frustrating because more than one person spoke at a time, so an interpreter was hired. Over the past several months Amy Baltzell, also a grinder, learned how to sign, and that helped.
Before a maneuver, Beattie crouches over a winch, which raises and lowers the sails, and grasps its two handles. When the helmsman, Leslie Egnot, shouts "Tacking," and one of the sail trimmers twirls her index finger, Beattie turns the winch as if pedaling a bicycle with her arms. During lengthy tacking duels, one of the most physically taxing parts of sailing, she is Greg LeMond climbing a steep peak in the Pyrenees. When the winds are light, she is a paperboy on a Schwinn delivering the morning edition.
Beattie and America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢•'s seven other grinders brought plenty of muscle to the boat—six are rowers and one is a weight-lifter—and silenced those who thought the women's crew would not be physically strong enough to be competitive. When working the coffee-grinder winches, this group grinds enough Java for all of Seattle. In the light winds of what is known as the Coma off Point Loma, America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• regularly beats its rivals in tacking duels.
Though the grinders brought strength, they also arrived with little or no sailing experience. But they quickly learned never to call a rope a rope. (It is a sheet, a halyard or a line.) They learned the difference between port and starboard, windward and leeward. They learned how to build a sail loft and how to operate a forklift. They learned about the electronic gadgets on deck and the secrets of the keel below. They are now sailors.
And somewhere in the Pacific, Beattie fell in love with sailing. "I'm going to continue sailing after this is over," she says. "The best thing about being on a boat is the space, the freedom out there. Every day is different. At practice it's so peaceful at times, and then other times, in the middle of a storm, you know that God is out there. You're watching the swells come in, and you're chopping right through them. You see a ripple way out there and then soon feel the wave go underneath you. You feel the wind...." Beattie goes on and on, this unlikely sailor speaking so eloquently about the sea it's as if she were baptized in saltwater.
"I'm here because I like doing things that people don't think are possible," she says.
The house is rented. The kitchen table bought new. The couch borrowed. The flatware purchased at a Salvation Army store. This is home for Dawn Riley, at least until the defender trials are over. Usually her life is lived out of a duffel bag. A bed is found on a boat or in the back of a van or on a friend's sofa. There is no need to own a car. Everything is purchased on one credit card, and the bills are sent to Mom in Detroit, then paid with money from Dawn's account. Last year Riley saw her fiancè, Barry McKay, a sailor from New Zealand, three months out of the year. They were engaged about a year ago when she was between legs of a race around the world and he was about to sail off in another one. When will they get married? "I hope sometime in the fall—the fall in our hemisphere," she says. This is the life of a professional sailor. This is the life of Riley.
"It might seem a little irresponsible," she says, with a slight smile that spreads into a toothy grin.
Riley is 30 years old, though with her blonde ponytail she looks much younger. She has been sailing for every one of those 30 years. "The first time I was on a boat was the day I was baptized," she says. "I was a month or so old. My mom didn't want me on a boat before that because, well, you know the way Catholics are, just in case."
When she was 12 she missed a year of school because her parents took the family on a trip from the Great Lakes to the Caribbean and back again. (Her parents tutored her using her school's eighth-grade textbooks.) She fell in love with sailing during that trip, somewhere in the Atlantic, and has been playing hooky from what others might deem a responsible life ever since.
Her family didn't belong to the blue-blazer set. She paid her own way through Michigan State, where she was the captain of the sailing team, by working in boatyards and sail lofts. An advertising major, she graduated in 1987, but when she found it difficult to break into the ad business, she decided to try sailing instead.
Since college she has competed on sailing circuits around the world, going from race to race like a migrant farmworker following the crops and the seasons. She has spent a total of nearly two years sailing in the Whitbread, the 32,000-mile, nine-month-long race—aboard Maiden in 1989 and '90, with the first all-women's Whitbread team, and then in 1993 and '94 as the skipper of Heineken, with another all-female crew.
Three years ago Riley worked the pit for America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• in the defender trials and was a rookie on the team—and the only female sailor in the 1992 Cup. Now she is a member of the afterguard, the so-called brain trust of the boat, and the only sailor on America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• with Cup experience. Riley's position is crew boss, which means she is the troubleshooter on board, attending to problems from the bow to the stern. "We need Dawn to help out all over the boat; everyone else has only been doing this for nine months," says Worthington, who was in Koch's afterguard in the last Cup campaign.
If this team didn't exist, Worthington says, Riley would be the only woman sailing in the defender trials. The America's Cup has remained an all-boys' yacht club because women sailors have been held back by this well-worn circularity: You can't race in big boats until you have the experience, and women haven't been able to get experience because they weren't given an opportunity to race in big boats.
Riley's past eight months in San Diego have been the longest period she has lived in one house since...the last America's Cup. Yet she wouldn't trade in her duffel-bag existence for a job on Madison Avenue and a nice house in the suburbs. "Sailing is a way to see the world and meet different people," she says. She can't think of a job that would give her the same rush that winning a race provides. "This is something I did when I was young, something I can do at midlife, something I can do until I'm ready to sail off into the sunset."
"And besides, it's a hell of a lot of fun," she says, as that impish smile stretches across her face.
And so the gap between a woman who started sailing the day she tried out for the team and a woman who started sailing the day she was baptized has narrowed considerably. They have found common ground on the ocean, competing in the most prestigious sailing race in the world, for sports' oldest trophy.
"I'm here to win—god, it felt good to stomp Dennis Conner in that first race," Beattie says, with a loud laugh.
"We can win this," says Riley. "Once we get our new boat, we'll be rocket-fast."
Whether America¬¨¬®‚Äö√¢• will make it into the Cup finals will come down to how fast the new boat is and to this question: "Can they gain experience as the calendar pages keep flipping over?" says PACT 95's president, John Marshall.
"Yes," says Beattie.
"Yes," says Riley.
They have already come so far.