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King of the cup.


Jimmy Spithill was destined to sail. Growing up on Scotland Island in Sydney's Pittwater, then a wilderness dotted with fishing shacks, young Jimmy and his siblings putted everywhere in their tinny, including to school each day. One of his earliest memories is of his dad, Arthur, building their first boat with bits and pieces salvaged from a Council clean up.

"It was tiny and a bit of a mess, really, but it gave me the taste for it." Next, Jimmy moved up to a two-person sloop with three miniature sails, which a neighbour was throwing out, and roped in his sister as his crew. "People thought we were crazy. Then we started winning races."

Inspired by the achievements of the crew of Australia II, in 1983, the first team to wrest the America's Cup from the New York Yacht Club in the event's 132-year history--and crewed by Colin Beashel and Rob Brown, both from Spithill's neck of the woods --a four-year-old Jimmy resolved to emulate his heroes and one day hold aloft the Auld Mug.

A steady rise through Australian sailing ranks onto the world stage followed. He debuted in the America's Cup as skipper aged just 20 with Young Australia, and stints at the helm of Oneworld (2003) and Luna Rossa Challenge (2007) followed before Spithill became the youngest ever winner of the America's Cup as helmsman and skipper of BMW Oracle Team 90 in 2010.

It was the AC34 that propelled Spithill to the echelon of legend in the sport, and a household name beyond die-hard sailing fans, when in the greatest sporting comeback ever, he led Oracle Team USA from 8-1 behind to overcome Emirates Team New Zealand 9-8.

Spithill admits much of AC34, is a blur. "It felt like the Hangover movie, for sure--no sleep for 10 days. It was relentless. We were facing the gun every day. But that's what tests a real team--when things don't go to plan and you have to find focus and make it happen. It took a week to come down from it. Then all of us, the crew, management, the shore guys, got sick."

What did keep him anchored at the time were his family--his wife, Jennifer and two little boys, Owen and Joe. "The boys were four and seven at the time. They were oblivious. At match point, there was so much pressure. Kids don't care. They're just glad to see you and want a story. I used to think kids would be a distraction, but it's actually an advantage. It's a great release and gets you back to equilibrium quicker. Plus, having kids makes it all more worthwhile. I'm not just doing it for myself."

Renowned for his composure, discipline and rabidly competitive spirit, which earned him the nickname "Pitbull" among Luna Rossa fans, Spithill says these days, he's more mellow, more calculated in his approach.

"We had a slower boat, we had to be aggressive from the start. Competing meant putting our foot on the throat early on. Sailing against Chris Dickson, we had to be full throttle. There's a time and a place for it, and when you're younger, you feel like that's the only way to win. But as I've got older, strategy and tactics override flat out aggression."

Not that he's lost any of his competitive zeal--he just knows how to channel it, even in his downtime. "I like kiteboarding, diving, paddling, everything to do with water. And, whatever it is, I like to win!"

Not content to dabble, Spithill took a freediving course, with David Blaine and eight of the world's best big wave surfers, who happen to be Spithill's best mates.

"We took a week off, in Bermuda. 1 had a real fear of staying underwater. I went from a personal best of 20 seconds to three and a half minutes at a depth of too feet. It was great to work through my fears and develop that confidence. It's all about mental fortitude, using your focus to calm yourself, in any situation."

Flying lessons too, added to his understanding of his sport and gave him an edge in the 2010 campaign. "We were sailing the biggest trimaran in the world. So, what better way to understand wings than to learn to fly?"

True to form, the experience was intense. Spithill headed to Warnervale on the NSW Central Coast, flying from sunrise to sunset every day and completing his license in just a couple of weeks.

"There's no question, there are fascinating similarities between flying and sailing: lift, drag, balance. In preparation for the AC45, I'm hoping to get my chopper license and appreciate the three controls (Collective pitch control, Anti Torque Pedals or Tail Rotor Control, Cyclic Stick Control)."

Today, based at Oracle's Bermuda HQ, competing and training ahead of AC35 in 2017, Spithill says that aside from the thrill of competing, he has always been motivated by results.

"Working with great people and achieving results are what drives me. That's the addiction. With Oracle, being such a big team, it's all the more satisfying. They have done many studies on the fact that the more people you have working together, the harder it is to achieve harmony. But with Oracle, it's like a massive family.

"It's all about the people. You spend more time with the team than with your family, so it has to work. Larry (Ellison) and Russell (Coutts) are great people who have assembled super crews. They are both very competitive people, who love to win. Larry is a natural athlete who's not afraid to put himself out there. He's tough, but fair. He's not afraid to make hard choices. When it comes to Oracle, there are no egos, no politics. "

Along with his father, Spithill credits his teen boxing coach, Tony O'Loughlin, who trained young men at the North Sydney Police Boys' Club. "He was a great guy, like a second dad to me," he acknowledges. "When you're 16,17, there are a lot of distractions and temptations. I was a red head and wound up in a few scrapes. Tony taught me self-discipline and morals. He showed me sport can be your saviour. It raises your self-esteem and keeps you from heading the wrong way. "

Sailing, says Spithill is enjoying a revolution, thanks to the evolution of the America's Cup. "In the past, it was seen as an elitist sport enjoyed by rich, old guys with yachts. The last two campaigns have turned that on its head and really captured the imagination of the broader public."

Larry Ellison has been key to many of the changes and creating a compelling TV product, explains Spithill. "The boats were too boring in the past. Now, it's the F1 of sailing. There's the risk, the boats, the athletes, the broadcast technology and ability to educate people on the racing. Its appeal is mainstream. For the first time ever, we have networks and sponsors negotiating a Rights Deal. We've worked so hard, running the teams, doing our own marketing, negotiating with sponsors. The next generation coming through will be able to earn a decent living.

"There's a lot of choice out there for sponsors and the public. America's Cup sailing is enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity. I'm pumped with the incredible TV deals secured for AC35."

Spithill is also pumped with the addition to Oracle of new recruit, fellow Aussie, Iron Man and Olympian, Ky Hurst. "It's so cool! He fits right in. No ego. The guys all put the team first and themselves second. Ky's an incredible athlete and we are all learning a lot from him. He will push all of us, and when all the teams are looking for that advantage, bringing insight from other sports will maybe give us that edge."

The other teams Spithill mentions include Artemis Racing, Emirates Team NZ, Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing, Groupama Team France and added to the mix, a Japanese team, SoftBank Team Japan under skipper Dean Barker. Then there's "a couple in the wings" who have yet to confirm, possibly another Asian team.

"It will be great for the Asian markets. They are huge sport and technology fans and AC35 will cater to both."

With America's Cup sailing still buoyed by the hype and intense competition of 20i3, Spithill says teams are constantly approached by athletes from other sports, such as X Games, Rugby, Football. While he says he's shocked by the demand, not everybody suits the rigours of the sport.

"The new cats are brutal," he asserts, referring to the AC45. "We were worried about going smaller, but we were shocked with their performance. If we were racing against an AC45 back in 2013, it would beat us. They're that quick. There's no question at these speeds, there's a risk. That's the attraction. It's not for everyone. You're close to that red line daily. It's very addictive!

"In testing, our heart rates are frightening! It's hard on elbows, shoulders, ankles. It's extremely physical, and you've got to think while you're doing it! It's really narrowed the field."

Spithill and his family now call Bermuda home, and are very content with their new lives. "The boys love the water. They've just done a sailing camp. It's a nice lifestyle. Warm in summer, cooler in the winter. Mozzies? No. I'm sitting on my verandah at 8pm and it's perfect."

While media, experts and fans initially scratched their collective head at the choice of Bermuda as host of the world's oldest sporting trophy, the nation is on track to host "the best ever" America's Cup. Contrary to many preconceptions, Bermuda is "an oasis" according to Spithill. "It will blow it away!" he says emphatically.

"Bermuda is a real destination. It has boating, beaches, turquoise waters, it's just two hours from Manhattan, and you can get from Europe via London and Miami.

"The race track is a natural amphitheatre. Unlike San Francisco, you can see the racing and the start and finish lines from the shore, which is great for spectators. The Bermuda government has gone all out to secure the America's Cup and everybody--from the Mayor to the taxi driver--is over the moon and proud to host it."

The financial package in Bermuda's bid is worth approximately US$77 million. Bermuda's Minister for Economic Development, Dr Grant Gibbons stated that AC35 will potentially generate US$250 million in revenue.

Mid-Atlantic Bermuda is in the ideal time zone for broadcasts to the US and UK markets. All six teams are housed in purpose-built facilities at the America's Cup Village at the Royal Naval Dockyard.

Initiatives crucial to securing the AC35 are cruise ships allocated for accommodation, a concerted effort to build more hotels and infrastructure, and a multi-faceted Event Village with hospitality and entertainment.

Historical wind data indicates there should be racing conditions 90 percent of the time in June, with the likelihood of varied conditions, increasing the challenges.

"We were impressed with the turnout at the World Series racing in Portsmouth, in July--nearly 300,000 spectators over the four days. The bookings in advance show there's no doubt, there will be crowds in Bermuda."

As he toppled some of the sports leading lights on his ascent, Spithill famously said there was no room at the top for the old fellas. He's now 36. When will it be his time to call it a day?

"Mentally, I never want to stop, although I realise there will come a day," he admits. "I want to stay involved with the team and assist them to achieve results. There are lots of different roles that are not age dependent and still require hard work. At the moment though, what gets me out of bed each day is racing."

What about beyond America's Cup? Does he aspire to Olympic sailing? "No. The format is too boring. Do you think people watch Olympic sailing on TV? Maybe a Volvo Ocean Race. That's real adventure. I see the future of the VOR in multihulls and shorter, faster legs. The in-port racing would be wild," he says, already envisaging the crowd-pleasing on-water entertainment.

"Who knows? Maybe, in the future. Right now, I'm just focused on the next campaign."
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Title Annotation:ONE ON ONE
Author:Bone, Jeni
Publication:Offshore Yachting
Geographic Code:5BERM
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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