Power | Savouring the hangover of victory

James Spithill never thought of giving a motivational speech, or of bringing someone in to boost morale, Donnie Power writes.

America's Cup champion skipper talks about overcoming an 8-1 deficit to retain the title

James Spithill, pictured here in St. John's, tells Donnie Power about the ultimate come-back. (CBC)

James Spithill never thought of giving a motivational speech, or of bringing someone in to boost morale. There were no 'Win one for the Gipper' moments. But there were also no thoughts of losing, no hint that the America’s Cup yachting competition was over.

Everybody outside Oracle/Team USA may have thought it was done, but inside the team's room, Spithill - the crew’s skipper and defender of the America’s Cup - says there was belief from the crew, even though his team was down 8-1 in the best-of-17 racing series. With no room for error, Spithill led his team to the ultimate comeback in sports history, winning eight straight races to retain the America’s Cup and become the story of the sports world.

"We had that belief and it's contagious," Spithill said Friday afternoon, taking a break from a Penfolds wine-tasting event at Raymond’s in downtown St. John’s.

"People say they believe us now. They've gone back and looked at the press conference and they now say that we believed we could win. This team just never gives up. It's like we we're in a boxing ring: well you better hit us as hard as you can and knock us out, because we won't quit."

Team USA, pictured here at the America’s Cup yachting competition, was down 8-1 before coming back to win. (CBC)

"The fact is that when you looked at the guy next to you, you could tell he wasn't done. And if at any doubt someone wavered - and I question at any point whether anyone on the team did — but at any point you only had to look at the guy next to him and go, 'This is the guy I want to be next to.' And that was right around the room."

So the team did what many thought impossible. The won the race that day, making it 8-2. And they continued to improve, and win. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Suddenly it's 8-8 and the entire world is watching.

"Every race is sudden death," the redhead smiled as he recalled the moments." One mistake and it's over.

"When we got to down 8-1, I put it out there in the press conference, when I was asked about the potential of losing. I asked what about if these guys lost and we came back? I think that was a key point because they started thinking about it. ‘What would happen if we did lose?’ They started thinking about the result.

"We never thought about the result. We just thought about the process. I think it's good to vividly picture yourself winning, but it's one at a time. That's what I love about sport. No matter how dire the situation looks, if you're still in there and there's still time left on the clock, you've got a shot."

And on that final day, Oracle had more than a shot. They had momentum, energy, a team of fired-up sailors, and a nation behind them cheering them on. And when the gun went off on a windy San Francisco day, Oracle had beaten New Zealand by 44 seconds, and achieved the impossible. Their initial reaction?

"Everyone got sick, physically," he admitted. "We had gone 20 days, no stop. There were reserve days, off days, but what we were we doing on the reserve days? We were out there sailing, training, trying to improve. The other guys never sailed on a non-race day."

OK, after that?

"It was pure ecstasy," he said. "The way it was done, words just don't do it justice."

Celebrating the win

Spithill is sharing this story just one week after sharing the stage on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He's done Howard Stern's radio show since winning. It's been a whirlwind trip, one that has taken him from the bays of San Francisco to the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club, where he spent time with the junior and young members out there, teaching them one of life's greatest lessons: never give up, never lose hope. It is his first and only Canadian visit, even though now everybody wants a piece of the Australian captain.

"Did I think after winning the America's Cup that I'd be coming here? Of course not," Spithill readily admitted. "But, I’m glad I came."

Damn, the champagne tastes good out of that trophy.- James Spithill

"The incentive for me is the next generation. Kids have lots of options these days. Finally we have the sport to a point where kids who aren't growing up in a sailing family say 'That looks cool. That looks fun."

"Sport doesn't judge you on where you're from."

No, that's the beauty of sports, no matter the game. You are judged by your ability to win. And Spithill has done that. Now, to his delight, his homeland is coming back to the America's Cup series, having been out for years. What that means for him is uncertain. His relationship with Oracle owner, billionaire Larry Elliston, is rock-solid, but so, too, is his love for home. 

"It's a crime that Australia hasn't been involved," he said. "It's like Canada not being involved in ice hockey. Obviously, what am I going to do? I don't know. I'm still getting over the hangover of the win."

Then with a pause, Spithill smiles, leans back and offers one final thought.

"Damn, the champagne tastes good out of that trophy."


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