It’s a cold, dark morning in Pittsburgh. A fresh layer of snow crunches under my sneakers as I head into the gym—aka “box”—of CrossFit Mt. Lebanon. My eyes adjust as I move from the dark street into the bright lights of the expansive gym, a converted car mechanic’s shop. There, others are starting to warm up, lace up their shoes, and get ready for the 6:30 a.m. workout.
This snowy, landlocked city is not somewhere I ever expected to travel for an interview with an Olympic sailor. Finding Anna Tunnicliffe in a gym is no surprise—she finished 9th at the CrossFit Games this past summer—but finding her in Pittsburgh requires more of an explanation. While she was training for CrossFit in Miami with Brad Tobias (he’s been her coach for the past two years, and her boyfriend since February), they met a real estate developer named Kevin Beamon. Kevin got hooked on CrossFit, dropped 30 pounds, changed his life, and decided to start a box when his wife got a job transfer back to Pittsburgh. He wanted to bring Brad and Anna with him to make the whole thing happen, and coincidentally, Anna’s parents live 30 minutes away. They started the business in early summer, and they now have 175 members.
“There’s an advantage to it because I won’t actually hit burnout,” says Tunnicliffe of her location, “but the disadvantage is I’m not putting time in the boat. It’s a balance. Both Molly [O’Bryan Vandemoer] and I campaigned hard for 8 or 9 years and didn’t really ever take a year off—just full on for 9 years. After these last Olympics we needed a break just to slow down a little bit, get away from sailing.”
Anna coaches both of her parents. Her dad, Paul, started recently, while her mom, Joanna, has been going to this 6:30 a.m. class every morning.
Anna (left) rallying the troops for a WOD during a morning class on Nov. 13.
Joanna shows me where to set down my jacket once we’re inside, and almost immediately, Anna spots us and walks up to introduce herself. She starts explaining to me how the workout will go, and after six others show up, Brad tells us to head over to the rowing machines in the next room for a 500-meter warm up.
From there, Brad leads us through a series of core exercises (planks where we rotate our shoulders around 10 times in each direction, and then tap our opposite shoulder with our hand), stretches (lunges and hip openers), and then explains our strength workout for the day—weighted lunges. Anna stands by and gives suggestions on form.
As Brad starts explaining the WOD (workout of the day), Anna heads over to the rings to demonstrate how to do ring dips, burpees, and box jump-overs. She makes it look effortless. We modify the moves to our strength level and get going (10 reps of each to start, then 9, 8, 7, and so on). The music is pumping, and I somehow have my “box” (actually, I’m jumping over a stack of weights) way too far from the rings. I see Brad motioning with his hands for me to keep sprinting to the box jumps. Anna watches me jump over the weights and points out that my hips are going to one side, my legs to the other, as I jump. I correct it and she nods her head in approval. I finish in 13 minutes to high-fives and cheers.
Our Workout of the Day, aka “WOD”
After we wrap it up, and I catch my breath, Joanna and I grab some breakfast next door. When we return, Anna’s doing her own strength workout: deadlifts with a “sumo” stance (feet wider and pointed out versus the stance of a normal squat).
The scent of bacon from my breakfast fills the room. “Oh my god, that smells so good,” Anna says as she adds more weight to the bar. I apologize (I know I get distracted by the smell of cooking no matter what!), but she assures me it’s no big deal.
She maxes out the width of the bar with weights, and Joanna helps her tie them in place with a band. She grunts out reps with 300 lbs., drops the bar, takes a few breaths, and then jots down a few notes in her black composition notebook. She explains to me that in her journal, much like a sailing notebook, she keeps track of what she lifted and how she felt.
We follow her up to the kitchen on the second floor of the gym, where she sautés some carefully portioned eggplant in coconut butter, then adds two eggs and half a sausage (she eats a paleo diet, and portions/weighs out all of her food according to the zone diet).
Joanna jokes about the role reversal of how Anna is now coaching her and Paul. “What’s that called? There’s a name for it,” she says.
“Revenge!” laughs Anna, as she sips her tea.
Only one person shows up for the 8:30 class, but no matter. Anna doesn’t just go through the motions. She carefully watches, and gives advice and encouragement for the next hour.
This is a pretty normal day for Anna: wake up at 4:30 a.m., be at the gym by 5, coach classes at 5:30, 6:30, 8:30, 10:00, and noon, and then head back to her home for a break in the afternoon, which she might use to do some work for sailing or just to relax. Then it’s back to the box at 4 p.m. for a few evening classes, and in bed by 9:30. Saturday, she says, she gets to sleep in later—a welcome rest from the busy week.
Anna squeezes in her WOD around 11 a.m. She rips through the moves that I struggled with a few hours earlier. She has her form down to a science: her legs act like levers as she goes through the tricep dips on the rings, and her form stays consistent through each burpee. She focuses hard as she makes each rep count, and finishes in 7 minutes and change. A few stragglers have stayed from the 10 a.m. class to watch, and they cheer her on as she goes through her last few reps.
Anna gets blurry during her WOD.
Later, Anna tells me that one of the best parts of CrossFit is that everyone does the same workout—it’s just scaled to what you can do. That way, she says, everyone cheers each other on and has something to talk about in common at the end. There’s a community vibe that keeps motivation up.
Kevin does the WOD with Anna (he’s also an extremely impressive athlete), and then sits down to chat with me after. We watch as Anna helps one of the 10 a.m. stragglers perfect his jumproping technique. “I mean, look at her,” says Kevin. “She’s just helping that guy learn how to jump rope!”
Kevin says her “winning attitude” is contagious. And it’s pretty obvious after spending the morning at the box that her enthusiasm is easy to catch. She may be training hard to win, but when she’s coaching you, and even when she just has some free time, she’s there to make you—the “you” here could be anyone, even the person that stumbles into the gym from the street for the first time—feel welcome and succeed. She is at the top of her game, but that doesn’t mean she forgets about everybody else.
Finishing up her WOD.
On her two passions, Anna says, “I love doing both, but one’s more of a job now and one’s a hobby. As long as I keep them both as something that I love to do, both fun, then it’s easy to balance it. At least in my heart, it’s easy to balance it.”
On getting to the top of her games in the two disciplines, she says, “It’s a lot of hard work, isn’t it. I spend all day at the gym, and I work out hard. It’s not pleasant whilst I’m working out, but the benefits afterward are great. If I don’t hit certain standards at certain times, I get punished and I have to do more. I have an incentive to do well and push myself, so then I do that. And then sailing, I don’t really like losing. It’s not that I love winning, I just hate losing. Isn’t that how the saying goes? I really hate losing. Anytime it’s not going well on the boat, I’m just that much more driven to get us that much better so that we can win—well, not lose. You put the time in and you can get good at whatever you want, I think.”
You’ll find our interview with Anna Tunnicliffe in the January/February 2014 issue of Sailing World.