SAN FRANCISCO — The big black cat almost used up its last life at the start, burying its bows in a wave and falling behind a boatload of Kiwis.
Of course, it was only fitting in this America’s Cup that Oracle Team USA would need to survive near-defeat again.
With one last spectacular push in a winner-take-all finale Wednesday, the United States managed to hang onto the Auld Mug in closing out the longest, fastest and, by far, wildest America’s Cup ever with one of the greatest comebacks in sports.
Skipper Jimmy Spithill steered Oracle’s space-age, 72-foot catamaran to its eighth straight victory, speeding past Dean Barker and Team New Zealand in Race 19 on a San Francisco Bay course bordered by the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Embarcadero.
All but defeated a week ago, the 34-year-old Australian and his international crew twice rallied from seven-point deficits to win 9-8. Owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, Oracle Team USA was docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warmup regattas and had to win 11 races to keep the trophy.
“It really is about the team, man,” Spithill said. “On your own you’re nothing, but when you’ve got a team like this around you, they can make you look great. They did all of that today and the whole series. I’m so proud of the boys. … They didn’t flinch.”
It could have been over shortly after the start just inside the Golden Gate Bridge.
Oracle’s hulking black catamaran — with a giant No. 17 on each hull — buried its twin bows in a wave approaching the first mark and Barker turned his red-and-black cat around the buoy with a 7-second lead.
The New Zealanders were game despite being stranded on match point for a week. Spithill and crew still had to sail their best to keep from becoming the third American loser in 30 years.
Oracle narrowed Team New Zealand’s lead to 3 seconds turning onto the third leg, the only time the boats sail into the wind.
New Zealand had the lead the first time the boats crossed on opposite tacks. By the time they crossed again, the American boat — with only one American on its 11-man crew — had the lead.
As Oracle worked to stay ahead, tactician Ben Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist from Britain, implored his mates by saying, “This is it. This is it. Working your (rears) off.”
It had to be a gut-wrenching moment in New Zealand — coming so close to winning the oldest trophy in international sports a week ago, only to see Oracle suddenly improve its speed.
“We knew we had a fight on our hands,” Barker said. “It’s really frustrating. The gains that they made were just phenomenal. They did just an amazing job of sorting out their boat. It’s a good thing for us they didn’t do it earlier. I am incredibly proud of our team and what we achieved. But we didn’t get that last one we needed to take the cup back to New Zealand. It’s just very hard to swallow.”