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 America³, 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 America³ 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 America³ 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, America³ has lost eight of 9 races, and as the second of four round-robins ended last week off Point Loma in San Diego, America³'s three points placed it a distant third behind Stars & Stripes and PACT 95's Young America, each with nine. But the America³ 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, America³ 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, America³'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.