SAN FRANCISCO -- Nobody believed Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill when he called his crew the underdogs before the America's Cup finals began. And no one believed him when, down 8-1 against New Zealand, he said they were going to make the greatest comeback in sailing history.
But in a dramatic final showdown Wednesday that one commentator called the "race of the century," the team owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison proved everybody wrong. In an intense, come-from-behind victory, Oracle Team USA beat Emirates Team New Zealand by 44 seconds for the oldest trophy in international sports.
Triumphant, Spithill and his crew pumped their fists and hugged each other as they flew by the shoreline, then in a heartening symbol of sportsmanship, applauded their competitors and gave them the thumbs up as they sailed past.
"This is one hell of a day," Spithill said on board after the race. "I'm just so proud of the boys, to be facing the barrel of the gun and win. What these guys do -- they don't even flinch."
Ellison, who has kept a low profile through the regatta, hugged the crew as he boarded the high-tech 72-foot, hydrofoiling catamaran that had forever changed the image of the America's Cup from a stodgy blue-blood event to a heart-pounding, extreme sport.
Thousands of flag-waving American fans, who have been largely absent from the summer-long event and turned off by the expense and an embarrassing cheating scandal, turned out Wednesday to be part of history. They cheered on every tack, jibe and nail-biting lead change along the racecourse.
So many spectators streamed into the park at Pier 27/29 along The Embarcadero just before the 1:15 p.m. race time that the fire marshal had to turn people away. They strained on the sidewalk to get a glimpse of big screens broadcasting the race live or ran down to open vantage points along the shore.
"We started this regatta slower than the other team, but we ended this regatta faster," Spithill said. "That was an incredible team effort. That's really what won us the Cup."
With the teams tied 8-8, the 72-foot catamarans set out for the final race. The Kiwis were on the defensive, having lost the previous seven races. The Americans had momentum on their side.
The race started close, with both teams crossing the starting line side-by-side. In something not seen for several races, New Zealand led at the first mark as Oracle Team USA nose-dived nearby in the gusty winds but quickly recovered.
"We wanted to keep it exciting for you guys," Spithill told commentators.
New Zealand continued to lead downwind, at times by only a boat length, and was first to the leeward mark. But Oracle Team USA rounded the opposite gate and split the course, a strategic move that made the difference farther along the upwind leg, part of the racecourse that repeatedly proved the undoing of Oracle.
"This is it! This is it!" Oracle tactician Ben Ainslie shouted to his crew, his voice picked up by microphones onboard. "Work your asses off!"
New Zealand led at two crossing points on the leg before Oracle finally passed New Zealand. From then on, Oracle widened the lead. The American team rounded the windward mark 26 seconds ahead, and after the last mark, Oracle raced to the finish, winning by 44 seconds.
"We knew we had a fight on our hands," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said. "It's really frustrating. The gains that they made were just phenomenal. They did just an amazing job of sorting out their boat. It's a good thing for us they didn't do it earlier. I am incredibly proud of our team and what we achieved. But we didn't get that last one we needed to take the cup back to New Zealand. It's just very hard to swallow."
Oracle, whose boat was slower and its crew sloppy in the first week of the regatta, showed the value of a shore crew that made changes to the boat every night and a crew that never gave up day after day.
The loss for Emirates Team New Zealand is as devastating for the crew as the island nation of 4.4 million. Team manager Grant Dalton, who at age 56 crewed on the physically demanding catamaran during most of the races and again on Wednesday, had said repeatedly that if his team didn't bring the trophy home this time, he wouldn't be able to find the sponsors to support them for the next campaign.
No fans have proved more loyal than the Kiwis. Before Wednesday's race, Kiwi fans at America's Cup Park had staged a "haka," chest-pounding battle cry to inspire the team. Many extended their vacations to stick with the team to the end.
The American fans came late but by Wednesday were enthusiastic, packing onto America's Cup Park and Marina Green.
"It took a while for San Francisco to show up, with the upfront cynicism related to Larry Ellison and the tragedy with the death. But now it seems like it's come together on a final day," said Brian Daly, 43, who lives in San Francisco and works across the street from the park. "What a climax, eh? It's amazing."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.
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