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Oracle Team USA Defeats New Zealand To Win America's Cup


It is being called one of the greatest comeback victories in the history of sports. We're talking about sailing, here. Defending America's Cup champion, Team U.S. beat its challengers from New Zealand in a winner-take-all race yesterday in San Francisco. Just a week ago, New Zealand held a commanding eight-to-one lead, and needed just one more victory to win sailing's most coveted prize.

But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the American team went on a winning streak with speed and more than a little moxie.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: If you're looking for a reason to explain Oracle Team USA's extraordinary comeback, let me take you back two weeks ago, to September 12th. On that day, New Zealand was leading the best of 17 competition, six-to-one. It was a rout. The Kiwis needed only three more victories to take home the America's Cup trophy. That's when the skipper of the American boat, Jimmy Spithill, an Australian, was asked whether he felt pressure to start winning.

JIMMY SPITHILL: Well, I think the question is imagine if these guys lost from here, what an upset that would be. I mean, they've almost got it in the bag. So that's my motivation.

GONZALES: Soon thereafter, Spithill and his Oracle teammates began their slow climb to get back in the competition. First, they changed personnel on their boat, and then modified the boat itself to make it faster, especially in the upwind legs of the race. A week ago, they started winning, and they never stopped.

In the post-victory news conference, Spithill credited his team on and off the boat.

SPITHILL: It didn't matter if you were a designer on the team. It didn't matter if you were, you know, a shore team member, a cleaner or a sailor. It didn't matter. You just wanted it, and you would just do whatever it took, and you knew you would just fight all the way to the end. And that was what produced the boat speed.

GONZALES: For the New Zealand team, representing a nation of just four million people, the impact of the loss was almost indescribable. Here's the managing director of Team New Zealand, Grant Dalton.

GRANT DALTON: For me, my job is just to now support the guys, because they're pretty smashed. They're feeling it pretty bad. And, well, a country is really devastated.

GONZALES: If the Kiwis were devastated, the American fans who watched from the San Francisco docks were over the moon. You see, this America's Cup competition was not your grandfather's yacht race.

These boats are double-hulled catamarans, 72-feet long, 13 stories tall, racing at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour on a confined course in the San Francisco Bay. The boats, called AC-72s, were designed to not only thrill an audience, but to attract new fans to the regatta, like Timothy Latulippe, who said he was hooked by the improbable odds of the American team's victory.

TIMOTHY LATULIPPE: I don't have a lot of ties to sailboat racing, or this particular sport. But, you know, that strong of a comeback that they had, it seems insurmountable. It actually seems more difficult than what the Red Sox could have possibly done.

GONZALES: He's referring to another amazing sports comeback story, when baseball's Boston Red Sox swept the final four games to beat the New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship series.

Another new fan, Latelle Barber, said she took her teenage son out of school to come watch the race on a whim.

LATELLE BARBER: Really, really amazing. I don't know anything about sailing, but it's, like, hey, we have a chance to come back and do something special here. So I brought the boy to see it.

GONZALES: That's exactly what the owner of Oracle Team USA, Silicon Valley mogul Larry Ellison hoped for when he brought the competition to San Francisco: A victory and the cheers of a new generation of sailing fans.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.