February 20, 1995 12:00 PM

THE WOMEN EMERGE, RUNNING FROM the predawn gloom along San Diego Bay and then, with long, powerful strides, disappear again into the darkness. It is still 90 minutes to breakfast, but the crew of America3 is already into the first leg of a grueling 13-hour workday of calisthenics, strength training and, of course, sailing.

Not since Billie Jean King took on Bobby Riggs in 1973 has there been such gender hype over a sporting event. For the first time in the 144-year history of the America’s Cup, the most prized trophy in world-class sailing, a women ‘$ team is vying to compete for it. From January through March, America3 (America cubed) races against two other U.S. syndicates in a round-robin sail-down to determine which will defend the Cup—that the U.S. has lost only once, to Australia in 1983—against one of seven foreign syndicates now competing for the right to be challenger. Starting May 6, the two boats will go head-to-head in a best-of-nine series to determine who will take home the ornate 27-inch-tall silver jug, now residing at the San Diego Yacht Club.

Many veterans of previous America’s Cup campaigns—perhaps the ultimate men’s club—claim that the women aren’t physically strong enough to get the job done. Yet Dennis Conner, three-time winner of the America’s Cup and a contender again this year, expresses grudging admiration for the Cubens, as the female crew is called. “I don’t think it will surprise anyone if they do really well,” he says. In fact they have, beating Conner’s boat, Stars & Stripes, in a round-robin match last month. Their patron, petrochemical millionaire Bill Koch, who won the last America’s Cup in 1992, is even more optimistic. “Only 2 percent of the race is about strength, “says Koch. “This race is about teamwork, tactics, and a fast boat. The women have all three.”

Plus years and years of sailing experience and other relevant training. Among the 28 team members—each race uses a crew of 16—are two Olympic sailing medalists, three firmer Yachts-woman of the Year, an aerospace. engineer, a world-class weight lifter and a professional bodybuilder. PEOPLE talked recently to four of the women who hope to make racing history this spring.

For JJ Isler, the stress has nothing to do with the 5 a.m. wake-up or the intense training schedule. “I’ve been sailing for 24 years, so I’m used to getting up before dawn,” says one of America3’s skippers. “No, the toughest part is being away from my little girl.”

Isler, 31, two-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year and mother of Marly, 2, is one of three parents on the all-woman crew. Juggling her roles has been difficult, and her husband, Peter Isler, a former Cup sailor and now an America’s Cup correspondent for ESPN, is unable to pick up the slack. “It doesn’t really hit me on the boat, because I’m so busy,” says Isler, whose mother, Jane Fetter, helps with child care. “But I hate to miss anything. She’s at such an incredible age.”

Isler’s father, Tom Fetter, a former commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club, bought the family’s first boat when JJ (her given name is Jennifer) was 4. “She whined and begged until we gave her her own little sabot—an 8-foot training boat,” says Fetter of the youngest of his three children. “She was never intimidated by anything.”

Isler became the first woman captain of the sailing team at Yale and went on to win a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics. But for her, nothing beats a chance at the America’s Cup. “I never thought it would happen,” she says.

Grinders, who are responsible for turning the winches that raise the 1,000-pound sails of the sleek 25-ton America’s Cup boats, are recruited for their muscle, not their knowledge of sailing. But Shelley Beattie, 27, a bodybuilder better known as Siren on TV’s American Gladiators, brings something else to the crew: determination. She is deaf and must communicate with her fellow sailors through hand signals.

The oldest of four children of Jack Beattie, a communications technician, and his wife, Laura, a bookkeeper, Beattie was 3 when she swallowed 20 adult-strength aspirins. The overdose caused irreparable nerve damage and progressive hearing loss. At first Beattie was too frightened to tell anyone what was happening, and her problem wasn’t diagnosed until her hearing loss was complete at age 11, the year her family moved from Santa Ana, Calif., to Monmouth, Ore. She got through high school by lipreading. “A challenge,” she says, “that made me a more determined person.”

Beattie expressed herself through athletics. She began lifting weights as a track athlete at 14 and became a professional bodybuilder at 22, winning the U.S. championship in 1992. That was the year she met her husband, bodybuilder John Romano, who was managing another competitor at a meet in Columbus, Ohio. Now her training has introduced her to sailing. “I’ll definitely continue to sail when this is over,” she says. “There’s such a sense of freedom out there on the water.”

Susie Nairn’s hands look more like a bare-knuckle boxer’s than a sailor’s. Nairn, 28, handles the carbon-fiber spinnaker pole that supports the billowing forward sail on downwind legs—a job that sometimes requires hanging in a harness up to 100 feet above the deck and untangling lines. “I’m not that big, but I’m pretty tough,” says Nairn. “You should see the bruises on my legs.”

In her youth, Nairn, the youngest of three children reared in Greenwich, Conn., developed a love-hate relationship with sailing. When she was 10, her father, Spence Leech, a computer expert, and her mother, Alice, then a homemaker, took the family on a two-year round-the-world sailing trip. The journey was a unique geography lesson, but when it ended, her parents broke up. “I didn’t sail for a long time,” she says. “I associated sailing with my parents’ divorce.”

The sailing bug bit again after college at the University of Virginia, and with the benefit of her early training, Nairn developed into a world-class competitor. She was an aerospace engineer designing data systems with NASA’s Microgravity division when she heard that Koch was forming a women’s crew for his America’s Cup entry When she was accepted, she persuaded her husband, Bruce, 42, a sales manager for a sail company, to move to San Diego with her. “I’m behind her 100 percent, even if sometimes I feel like Margaret Thatcher’s husband—whatever his name was,” says Bruce.

“When you’re thrown into 53°F Lake Huron with one oar and your dad won’t jump in and get you, you learn to sink or swim,” says Dawn Riley. Experiences like that, as a grade-schooler in Detroit—the eldest of three children of Chuck Riley, a computer executive, and his wife, Prudence, a homemaker—taught Riley that gender simply wasn’t important. “I had to be the leader. I had to set the example,” she says.

Riley, 31, captained the coed Michigan State sailing team in 1985, was a backup navigator on Koch’s ’92 America’s Cup winner and skippered an all-women’s boat in the Whitbread Round-the-World race in 1993-94. She has tried other jobs, but she always came back to sailing. “It’s what I do. It’s who I am,” she says.

Marriage plans, too, have been pushed aside. Riley has been engaged to New Zealand sailor Barry McKay since 1993, but their careers, even more than geography, keep them apart. “One of us will have to compromise at some point,” says Riley Right now, though, compromise is not in her vocabulary. “This whole thing is the opportunity of a lifetime,” she says.


JAMIE RENO in San Diego

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