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Overcoming defeatism

When the first yachtsmen set off to sail around the world singlehanded, they said it couldn’t be done. When Larry Ellison revealed that he wanted to run the 34th America’s Cup in giant catamarans, they said it shouldn’t be done. It would be too expensive, they said. There wouldn’t be enough entries, they said. The boats were unsustainable. You can’t match race catamarans. The wing sails and foils would make it a straight-line speed drag race. It would be the worst America’s Cup ever, they said.

And for a long, long while, it seemed as if all those damning predictions were coming true. Legal battles and political wrangling dogged the onshore organisation. Only four teams took AC72s to San Francisco. First an Oracle boat capsized, breaking their wing, then an Artemis 72, killing Andrew Simpson. The defending team was found guilty of cheating in the AC45 fleet. The Louis Vuitton Races were often painfully one-sided. One of the darkest chapters in the event’s history appeared to be being written.

When Emirates Team New Zealand dominated the first half dozen final races, sailors celebrated – not just because they were rooting for the black boat, but because it seemed as if the American hosts were about to get their comeuppance. Ellison’s over-ambition would be tempered.

Or not. The same over-arching confidence of the multi-billionaire team principal permeated the whole team. On September 13, seven races down, Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill warned: “Imagine if these guys lost from here, what an upset that would be!”

It wasn’t very much longer before the Americans proved that they could indeed dare to dream. In one of the greatest comebacks ever seen in any sport, they clawed their way first back into contention, then onto equal points. Ellison’s fantastical dream of evenly matched catamarans tearing around San Francisco Bay, seizing the world’s television viewing audiences and forever changing our expectations of what a sailing regatta means, was fast becoming reality. Both teams demonstrated extraordinary levels of skill and sportsmanship, in 19 races of unequivocal brilliance. That the event climbed to an 8-8 tiebreak, winner-takes-all finale, and that the Cup went yet again to a team wearing Stars and Stripes, seems almost too much of an all-American fairytale ending to be true.

It’s not a perfect fairytale. A young family is still missing their husband and father, and no sporting triumph can ever be worth a man’s life. But it is an incredible story of how self-belief can achieve the seemingly impossible, and it is entirely fitting that much of that achievement can be attributed to Ben Ainslie, one of Bart Simpson’s closest friends and a man for whom defeat, or defeatism, appear simply inconceivable.

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