Oracle skipper Spithill tough on, off water in America's Cup

HAMILTON, Bermuda (AP) Jimmy Spithill isn't afraid of a fight.

The 37-year-old Australian skipper of Oracle Team USA will take on all comers, whether it's from behind the wheel of his fast catamaran in the America's Cup, in a boxing ring or via lethal mind games at news conferences.

He's already going strong as he attempts to win a third straight America's Cup with Oracle Team USA, the powerhouse squad owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison. Spithill's opponent starting Saturday on Bermuda's Great Sound is Emirates Team New Zealand, which is looking to atone for its soul-crushing collapse in 2013.

One of the more intriguing matchups, besides how the teams' 50-foot, foiling catamarans compare and how well the crews sail them, is how Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling, a 26-year-old America's Cup rookie, holds up against Spithill.

As spot on as Spithill can be on the water, he's a master behind a microphone.

Two weeks ago, even before Team New Zealand had clinched a spot in the final, Spithill said at a news conference that the Kiwis made fundamental mistakes in losing two races in the round robins to Oracle. He said Oracle's setup with tactician Tom Slingsby, another hard-nosed Aussie, was much better than the Kiwi boat.

And then, saying he had a ''leak'' in the Kiwi camp, Spithill upstaged Burling when he said the Kiwis would pick Britain as their challenger semifinal opponent.

Spithill has never lacked confidence, whether it was as the 20-year-old skipper of a bare-bones Aussie challenge in the 2000 America's Cup, or at age 30 becoming the youngest skipper to win sailing's biggest prize.

In 2013, he helped lead one of the greatest comebacks in sports, when Oracle, down 8-1 at match point to the Kiwis, won eight straight races on San Francisco Bay to retain the oldest trophy in international sports.

As much as Oracle simply sailed its catamaran better as the comeback progressed, there was a defining moment at a news conference. Down 7-1, Spithill was asked how he and his team could stay motivated.

''I think the question is, imagine if these guys lost from here,'' Spithill said, glancing at then-Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker. ''What an upset that would be. They have almost got it in the bag. So that's my motivation. That would be one hell of a story, that would be one hell of a comeback and that's the kind of thing that I'd like to be part of.''

Barker looked as if he'd just been jarred out of a nightmare. Spithill was both Nostradamus and the Grim Reaper, backing up his comments on the water.

''Look, I really try and portray the team,'' Spithill said Friday after he and Burling posed with the America's Cup. ''When I look around me and look at my teammates, I have a lot of confidence. There are a lot of great guys, guys that aren't afraid of a fight and guys that no matter what the situation, good or bad, they're not going anywhere. They're going to be there when we need them.''

Fellow Aussie John Bertrand, who beat Dennis Conner in 1983 to end the New York Yacht Club's 132-year America's Cup winning streak, said Spithill ''is confident in that space. That's his style and that's his natural bent. He potentially could have represented Australia in boxing at the Olympics. He was a very good boxer in the early days.''

Bertrand believes Burling is tough because of his dominance in winning the Olympic gold medal in the 49er class at Rio de Janeiro last summer with Blair Tuke, a Team New Zealand grinder.

''You see in Peter Burling that he's much more laid back. ... You're dealing with different characters. Can the Jimmy sort of aggressive stance have any influence on Peter? I don't know,'' Bertrand said. ''But you're dealing with a very different style of person compared to Dean, in my observation at least. Time will tell.''

Unflappable on the water, Burling seems nonplussed about Spithill.

''We're more worried about how to make the boat go quicker, how to get around the track quicker. If you stop thinking about that, that's where you go wrong,'' Burling said.

On Thursday, Emirates Team New Zealand posted photos on its Facebook page showing Oracle crewmen carrying bow sections to SoftBank Team Japan's base, speculating that Oracle was assembling a backup boat using the Japanese platform. Oracle sold a design package to SoftBank Team Japan so their boats are similar.

Spithill didn't deny Oracle was preparing a backup boat in case of a smashup. If it was a ruse, it was a good one.

''I think it just shows that you guys will fall for anything,'' Spithill chuckled.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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