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Former Ironman champion and Olympic swimmer Ky Hurst has found a new pro sport: sailing. He joined Team Oracle, adding pool sessions and more to their training regimen. 

By Nelson Rice
May 05, 2016

Although Ky Hurst often spends four to five hours a day on the water, his profession is anything but a casual day at sea.

He is a grinder for Team Oracle USA, the two-time defending America’s Cup champion who will compete this weekend in the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series regatta on New York City’s Hudson River. The regatta—a preliminary for the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017—will be the first America’s Cup races held in New York City since 1920.

Less than a year ago, Hurst had no intention of switching gears. He was still heavily involved in Ironman (surf lifesaving), which consists of swimming, paddleboarding, and ski paddling legs. In March 2014, he reached out to his friends and Australian sailing legends Carter Jackson, Glenn Bourke, and Iain Murray—the Regatta Director for the 34th America’s Cup. Hurst was looking for a new challenge. He had asked them if they knew anyone who had a spare position on a race boat.

A year later, Tom Slingsby—Oracle’s helmsman, tactician, and sailing team manager—called. Hurst began introducing himself, but it wasn’t necessary. “Mate, I know who you are,” Slingsby told Hurst.

“Ky is a rock star in Australia,” Slingsby says.

Hurst, 35, earned that reputation and the nickname “Killer Ky” from his dominance in the water. He won seven Australian Ironman titles and four consecutive Australian Surf Life championships. He contended in the Beijing and London Olympics in the 10K open water swim. The only way to handicap Hurst was to take him out of his element. In 2005 he competed in Australia’s version of Dancing with the Stars. He was the third celebrity eliminated.

But when Hurst talked with Slingsby, they didn’t discus ballroom routines. Hurst explained that he had always wanted to be a part of a team and that he was inspired by Oracle’s stunning comeback in the last America’s Cup after failing behind Team Emirates New Zealand 8-1. Oracle won 9-8. “Just give me a chance,” he asked Slingsby.

Slingsby did.

He invited Hurst to his home at Terrigal Beach, in New South Wales, where the two had lunch. Then they went to the gym. Hurst’s test was a 20-minute time trial on a grinding machine, which simulates the grinding pedestal on an America’s Cup boat.  Every two minutes the resistance increases. Once you can no longer hold a certain RPM, it shuts off.  Hurst and Slingsby competed side by side. Their scores were almost identical.

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“Have you done this before?” Slingsby asked.

In September, Hurst relocated to Bermuda with his partner, Katie, their three-year-old son, Koa, and their Black Labrador, Jet.

An AC45 is a different animal. With a 66-foot airplane wing-like sail and hydrofoils that make the boat look as though it’s flying, the twin-hull catamaran weighs around 2,900 pounds is more engineering marvel than sailboat.

“It is a whole new world,” says Hurst, who before joining Team Oracle had sailed in few big boat regattas, including the Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race aboard Spirit of the Maid—a Volvo 60 racing boat. “The best way you could put it is that it’s the Formula One of sail racing.”

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During his first time on board, Hurst spent a few hours in the guest position. Then he was called into action. The breeze that afternoon was around 15 knots and the boat neared a top speed of 50 mph.

“It was a baptism by fire,” Slingsby says. “But Ky was great. He was straight into the role and you didn’t have to work around him at all.”

Hurst’s comfort has increased each time he’s been on the water. He’s now equally capable in the wing trimmer role responsible for controlling the goliath 899-square-foot wingsail.

“I am constantly learning,” Hurst says.

The education has gone both ways. After Hurst joined Team Oracle, he was pivotal in adding pool sessions to their training regimen. Those workouts are two or three times a week and consist mainly of sprints, followed by breath holds to expand lung capacity and aerobic fitness.

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When asked if any of the crew can keep up with him in the pool, Hurst laughed.

“No,” he says. “But that’s not what it is about. I am here to get these guys fitter as a whole.”

It’s worked.

Since the team incorporated pool training, their numbers in grinding tests have increased and Hurst says they’ve “smashed” the previous records set during the last campaign. Throughout a 20-minute grinding test, he averages 300 watts and 400 during the last five minutes.  That production is on par with Tour de France cyclists.

Hurst represents a changing of the guard for grinders. In past America’s Cups, grinders were “huge balls of muscle,” in Slingsby’s vernacular. Their weight was between 220 and 245 pounds, since crews performed maneuvers about once every five minutes. But with the new design of the catamarans, maneuvers are required almost once every minute.

“In the old boats, you would sprint and do the maneuver, then the guys got time to rest,” Slingsby says. “It was all about your max power. But now to keep these boats flying, requires constant energy…you are grinding non-stop for a 30-minute race.”

Enter Hurst. At 6’5” and 196 pounds, he is the team’s lightest grinder and the ideal combination of endurance and strength.

“We need the fittest person in that position,” Slingsby says of Position 1, also called the hydraulic grinder. “It’s the hardest, most physically demanding spot.”

It is also the position that is closest to the bow. About a month ago, Oracle was speeding along at 45 knots, when they attempted a foiling gybe, but “got too high on the foils.” They nose-dived.  Hurst was in the process of crossing, when he estimates two tons of water plowed into his back. His neck slammed against the carbon fiber rigging. He lost his breath and collapsed. He spent a week off the water recovering from the whiplash, and considers himself lucky. He takes confidence from the team constantly training for a worst-case scenario, like their recent capsize.

Team Oracle has two chase powerboats with a rescue diver onboard close by every time they are on the water. Hurst and the rest of the five-man crew wear helmets and wetsuits outfitted with shin, knee, and thigh pads. They have a harness underneath their life vests. They carry an oxygen bottle and two knives (one straight edge and one rope cutter).

The team righted the AC45 in five minutes. No one was injured.

“It takes a certain character to be on these boats,” Hurst says. “I don’t think it’s for the light-hearted.”

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Despite his injury, Hurst left on April 16 for Australia to compete for Kurrawa Surf Life Saving Club at the Surf Life Saving Championships. “I guess I really had no reason to jump back into surf racing,” he says. “But I love racing no matter the sport.”  

The return to his home country was short-lived. He was back in Bermuda by April 26, and sailed four hours the next day. So while Hurst might face backwards in his position on the boat, he is already looking forward and knows each day of training is a step closer to his latest pursuit.

“I now have one goal,” he says. “And that is to do everything in my power to keep this Cup in America.”

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