Ben Ainslie made a childhood dream reality by inspiring Oracle Team USA to one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history by winning the America’s Cup.
The four-times Olympic champion helped his team recover from a seemingly insurmountable 8-1 deficit to record a 9-8 success over Emirates Team New Zealand in the 34th staging of the event. And they did it with a thrilling victory in the deciding race in San Francisco Bay on Wednesday night.
The 36-year-old told BBC Radio 5 Live: “We never stopped believing we could improve and get back into the competition.
“It got harder and harder for us but, ultimately, we hung on in there and won that deciding race, so the team did an incredible job. We just grew and grew and, in the end, we were too strong for the Kiwis.
“I grew up down in Falmouth in Cornwall, we had an America’s Cup team down there in 1987 and I remember as a kid watching them training and preparing and thinking about maybe one day being involved with the America’s Cup. To be part of a winning America’s Cup team is, for me personally, part of a lifelong dream.”
The hosts faced an uphill task after being docked two penalty points, meaning they were 8-1 down last week despite having won three races. Ainslie was drafted in from the warm-up crew as tactician in place of John Kostecki as his team looked to get back in the contest and he was one of the catalysts of the turnaround which stunned the Kiwis. The role of tactician, which made him responsible for the route the boat took on the course, was different to his usual position as helmsman.
“It was a pretty big shift,” the Briton said on BBC One. “It was a big call for the management to make but I gelled really well with Jimmy Spithill, the skipper of the team. We got stuck into the challenge and we turned things around. It’s quite unbelievable to think where we were ten days ago, to come back from that.”
Afterwards, Ainslie dedicated the victory to his late friend Andrew Simpson. British Olympian Simpson was killed in a training accident in May, a tragedy which so shocked the sport that there were questions over whether the 34th America’s Cup would even take place.
“I finished the race today, one of the most amazing races I’ve ever been a part of, but myself and I think a couple of other guys on the boat, our thoughts are with Andrew and his family,” Ainslie added. “That race today was for him and he would have loved it.”
Ainslie believes the thrilling racing from the pair of state-of-the-art catamarans has won sailing a new set of fans.
“It’s been great for our sport,” he added. “To see these boats tearing around at 50mph, the effort that’s gone into the TV production and the footage that we’ve seen and these two amazing teams racing against each other I think is something we’ve never seen in our sport.
“It sets things up very nicely for the future, it’s very exciting.”
And Ainslie wants that future to involve Britain. He added: “The America’s Cup started in the UK in 1851. We’ve never had it back since, so it’s about time we changed that.”
On the losing side, New Zealand prime minister John Key summed up the mood of his country in defeat by simply tweeting: “Bugger.”
For Oracle founder Larry Ellison, the only thing better than winning the cup was winning it against all odds.
Ellison’s Team USA had been within an inch of losing the world’s oldest international sporting trophy to New Zealand’s Emirates Team just a week ago, only to come back with the astonishing eight races in a row they needed to retain the Cup.
The epic battle over the past few days has been a major vindication of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s much-maligned vision of how to modernise the competition.
For months ahead of actual racing, Ellison, known for his brash personality and aggressive business tactics, weathered near-constant criticism over the cost, complexity and potential dangers of the 72-foot catamarans he chose for the event.
Only three teams ultimately challenged Oracle and Simpson was killed when the Swedish team’s AC72 broke apart and capsized in May.
“There was a lot of criticism about these boats,” Ellison said. “I thought that, rather than me personally responding, it would be up to the guys ultimately to show what these boats are like on the water. Let the regatta get started and let the people judge.”
And spectators ultimately ruled in Ellison’s favour, partly because he brought the regatta, historically held miles out to sea, into San Francisco Bay where strolling tourists and die-hard sailing aficionados could watch the races up close.
“This regatta has changed sailing forever,” he beamed at a news conference, flanked by Oracle skipper Spithill and the 162-year-old trophy.
Emirates Team New Zealand spent about $100 million on its failed campaign and, while Ellison refused to comment on suggestions he spent much more than that, he agreed that costs must be brought down in order to attract more challengers. “It’s no secret these boats are expensive. We’d like to have more countries competing so we’re going to have to figure out how to accomplish both – getting more countries competing while keeping it spectacular.”