Lost at Sea AMERICA3 Even if they win, members of the first all-woman team in America's Cup history have already lost their way. When they put a man on the boat, they sacrificed their indentity -- and dashed the dreams of a generation.

March 30, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

San Diego -- Dawn Riley, standing at the door of the America3 training room, looks more like a boxer than the most famous female sailor in the world. Her hands, rubbed raw by ropes and nine solid months of sailing, are packed in ice and wrapped in white towels. She waves an enormous mitt at her teammates, then climbs behind the wheel of her Camaro and maneuvers gingerly off into the night.

Inside, Olympic rower Stephanie Maxwell-Pierson stretches out on a table for an ultrasound treatment on her right shoulder. "How much longer do I have to go? I just want to be mentally prepared," she explains, her voice muffled in the table's plastic cover. Nine minutes, comes the answer.

Susan Hemond-Dent, who grew up shagging fly balls in Chicago's Comiskey Park and snagged a spot on this team just 10 weeks ago, dashes in to rewrap a drooping ice pack. Then she's off to the locker room to replenish the toilet paper.

Helmsman Leslie Egnot, a bashful-looking woman with huge blue eyes beneath dark brown bangs, sips a beer and eats spiced beef jerky, provided by official sponsors of America3. She's waiting for a rub-down, then ice packs for her shoulders.

Fire and ice. This is the way 13-hour days end for the first all-woman crew to compete in the 144-year-old America's Cup. As a flag in their gym says, "Sail tough or go home."

It is March 13, the last week of practice before the America's Cup semifinals will begin. The physical price of racing is evident among bodies battered from repetitive and stressful motions: grinding winches, pulling ropes, gripping the wheel. The mental toll is less obvious, but it's there, too.

In just three weeks, the grand experiment that began a year ago -- and captured the interest of sailors and landlubbers alike -- could come to an abrupt end. To earn the right to defend the Cup against an international challenger in May, America3 still must survive the semifinals and the finals. Not an impossible task, but a daunting one for a team with a 5-16 record going into the semifinals.

Millionaire Bill Koch is the brains behind the first female team in Cup history -- a noble idea that happens to be a stroke of marketing genius. (He spent $70 million of his own money on his '92 effort; donations will underwrite the $20 million budget for this one.) But like a boy who launches a paper boat through spring-swollen gutters, Koch has set in motion something he no longer controls. America3 has become a feminist milestone, a team that transcends the sport: Like the all-pro hoopster "Dream Team" of the 1992 Olympics, America3 is charged with proving something to the world.

Sailing is a sport where women can compete equally with men. Strength will be important, yes. But no one ever muscled his way to an America's Cup. Technology, strategy, experience. Those will be the determining factors.

Technology. America3 has a new boat, Mighty Mary, and its speed may give the team an edge. Strength. America3 has weightlifters and world-class rowers, women who can bench-press their boyfriends. Strategy. America3 has the world's top sailors: international champions, Olympic medalists, including one at tactician, the brains of the boat. Experience. Well, that's the one area where America3 comes up short.

It is a Catch-22 familiar to women everywhere: You can't get the job because you lack the experience. You can't get the experience without the job. Few of these women have ever been on the 75-footers of Cup competition, boats so finely engineered for speed and weightlessness that one snapped in half just a week earlier and sank within minutes.

And that is the fourth factor, the most unpredictable of all: nature. The wind, the waves, the unexpected still spots in the middle of the ocean.

None of the teams can control nature, although it is human nature to try. Anything can be done, it seems, in the name of Winning.

The women of America3 prefer the label "athletes" to "feminists." They insist, "It's not about being a women's team. It's about being competitive" -- as if the two must be mutually exclusive.

But some of them, especially those for whom sailing is new, freely admit they are drawn by the chance to make history. This is the paradox at the heart of America3, pronounced "America-cubed." Their statements hint at the contradictions.

"If we win," more than one woman says in the exact same words, "it will be huge."

"It sounds trite," says Susanne Leech Nairn, who left Annapolis and a job as a NASA engineer to join the team, "but NASA was just a job, this is a dream."

Women everywhere, and some men, are sharing the dream. At sunset, as the sailboats return to the harbor, local people and tourists gather on a public dock to wave at the exhausted women. In the gym, where the women begin each day at 6:30, is a dried bouquet of roses from Glamour magazine, banners from open houses drawing thousands of supporters. "Women who seek equality with men lack ambition," says one message.

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