Women Who Make Waves Alongside Men
Anna Seaton Huntington, a world-class athlete, mother, and freelance journalist, has enjoyed two radically different sports experiences.
In 1992 she won a bronze medal rowing a coxless two-person racing shell on the placid waters of Lake Banyoles in Spain. Three years later she was on board an America's Cup sailboat, plowing the ocean waters off San Diego, surrounded by 15 crew members. The latter experience made headlines.
What life was like as a member of the the America3 team is the subject of her first book, "Making Waves: The Inside Story of Managing and Motivating the First Women's Team to Compete for the America's Cup" (The Summit Publishing Group). It is a succinct work, impressive in its equilibrium and carefully worded candor.
During a visit to the Monitor newsroom, accompanied by her infant son and child-tending mother-in-law, Huntington proves equally as insightful in person.
She says her book attempts, in some measure, to reflect the collective experience of the America3 team, which sailed the Mighty Mary.
The foreword is written by Bill Koch, the wealthy patron who conceived and funded this pioneering venture.
Some viewed Koch's inspiration as a publicity grab, complete with a New York press conference to introduce the team.
The idea proved more viable than skeptics anticipated, as America3 won the first round of the lengthy America's Cup defender trials before losing out in a tightly contested battle against two all-male boats (including one skippered by Dennis Conner) for the right to race for the cup.
From conversations she's since had with young women and their parents, Huntington says she's convinced the team made a positive statement about female athletic capabilities. Where the experience came up short, in her view, was in the team's inability to fully capitalize on its common gender.
"This was an idea that a bunch of men had come up with," she observes, "and at first it was an idea under their control. But right from the start I wondered at what point the women were going to make this their own. I thought the story would be how the women would take this over and really make it their team. I'm not sure if that ever completely happened. I think we got within a few steps of it."
Perhaps the first hint that the women wouldn't collectively assert their identity came with their preference to be called "girls" not "women."
"To most of the sailors," Huntington writes, girls "seemed to imply youthful strength and vigor rather than a put-down."
Beyond this consideration, Huntington says the team's organization did not encourage female autonomy. The hierarchy had male coaches and managers at the top.
"Even though we were in a position to make the decisions on the boat," Huntington says, "those decisions were criticized by the men off the boat. It never felt like we said, 'OK, fine, but this is what we think and this is what we're going to do.' As a group of women we never started having our own meetings and we never rallied around one particular woman to be the leader. We always turned to the people who happened to be men, who were in charge of us."
This wasn't due to an absence of natural female leaders, Huntington says. She identifies two women with the necessary qualifications: J.J. Isler and Dawn Riley.
Huntington calls Isler a world champion sailor with "a leader's candle power, a really, really smart woman with a lot of sailing experience and very personable."
Riley is equally as experienced, having previously sailed in the America's Cup and competed in two Whitbread around-the-world races.
Huntington says Riley is "willing to stick out her neck." She's done so by launching her own America's Cup campaign, a combined men's and women's crew that will attempt to qualify for the next Cup races in New Zealand in 2000.
While building team autonomy may not work in some sports, Huntington says it's advantageous in sailing.
"It's what gives you the confidence to make decisions and believe in your decisions. For people in the back of the boat, that's all sailing is, a series of split-second decisions over four hours. I think if we had a sense as a team that those were the right decisions because those were our leaders making those decisions, that might have taken us a few steps farther. In the long run, I think we got incredibly far," Huntington says.
Huntington herself was an outsider, a rower recruited for her strength who acknowledges that "the America's Cup world ... can be a little unreal," what with $20 million spent on an average campaign in 1995.
Added to this culture shock was the need to play catch-up in an unfamiliar sport.
"I didn't know what a jib was," she confesses. "It was a solid month before I felt I could contribute in a gainful way to the speed of the boat."
She served as a grinder, cranking the winches that raise and lower the sails. The demands of training and racing, she found, were quite different from those in rowing, where races require an intense, seven-minute effort.
In sailing, lower levels of physical output are required over much longer periods of time.
"I felt like I constantly had to be trying to rally to keep my energy alive," Huntington says.
Nevertheless, she found sailing exhilarating. "Being out on a boat that's 75 feet long with a mast 110 feet high is an incredibly powerful, visceral thrill," says Huntington, who lives with her husband and son in San Francisco.
"You're constantly pounding over the waves, the spray's coming up over the side, people are yelling all the time, and there's always a sense of fun and urgency about it."