Against long odds, the America’s Cup is staying in the U.S., thanks to a miraculous finish by Oracle Team USA that is being called one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
Certainly it is the greatest comeback in the 162-year history of America’s Cup.
Oracle Team USA retained the Auld Mug by winning a Cup-record eight straight races against Emirates Team New Zealand, topped by Wednesday’s winner-take-all showdown in Race 19 of the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco Bay.
The two boats exchanged the lead early in the final race before Oracle took control, upping its lead from 26 seconds after Gate 3 to 39 seconds after Gate 4, before taking a 44-second victory, prompting the Oracle crew to exchange hugs and raise their arms in celebration.
It was the longest Cup in history at 19 days, and the Oracle, owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, overcame what appeared to be an insurmountable 8-1 deficit and defeated the Kiwis 9-8, despite having to win 11 races instead of nine due to a two-race penalty imposed over a cheating scandal before the event even began.
American skipper Jimmy Spithill called it a “fantastic” race, adding, “These guys just showed so much heart.
“It really is about the team, man,” Spithill told the TV crew from his boat moments after winning. “On your own, you’re nothing. But when you got a team like this around you, they can make you look great. They did all of that today and in the whole series, I’m just so proud of the boys. They were looking down the barrel of a gun, and what do these guys do? They don’t even flinch. It’s a fantastic team effort.”
Ellison, who watched his team’s epic comeback from a boat near the course, quickly joined his winning team aboard Oracle where crew members were spraying each other with champagne and drinking it as well. Upon stepping into the celebration, Ellison told the crew, “Hey guys, you just won the America’s Cup!”
Excitement was all around. A fire boat sprayed water nearby, spectators on shore waved American flags, and spectator boats crowded around Oracle before following it closely on what could be termed a victory lap.
For the Kiwis, it was a bitter defeat. Not only for the crew but for a nation.
“The country is really devasted,” Emirates Team New Zealand managing director Grant Dalton said at the press conference.
After winning last Wednesday’s first race, Team New Zealand needed only one more victory to retake the Cup for the third time. But day by day, through three weather delays, Oracle started sailing stronger and gained more confidence with each victory while the Kiwis began feeling the noose tighten.
The biggest blow to Team New Zealand came in light winds on Friday. The Kiwis were well on their way to winning Race 13 when the 40-minute time limit elapsed while it was heading for the finish line, wiping out what would have been the Cup-winning race.
One TV commentator captured the moment perfectly, saying that the U.S. received a get out of jail card. And Oracle took advantage of it, turning the tables on the Kiwis to win the rerun of Race 13 to stay alive.
If not for the two-race penalty, Oracle would have wrapped up the Cup on Tuesday. The penalty was imposed by an international jury just four days before the start of the America’s Cup.
In what was described as one of the harshest penalties in the 162-year history of America’s Cup, Oracle was docked two points, a key sailor, and two shore crewmen were expelled, and the team was fined $250,000 after a four-week cheating investigation.
The jury found that Ellison’s team made illegal modifications to prototype boats used in America’s Cup World Series warm-up regattas last year and earlier this year. Specifically it added weights to the forward king posts and extended the post, thereby taking the boats out of the strict one-design rule.
All that didn’t matter Wednesday, however. Oracle Team USA is keeping the Cup.
So where does this rank in the world of sports history as far as comebacks?
The San Francisco Chronicle attempted to put it in perspective:
The only big league baseball team that has come back from being down 3-0 was the Red Sox against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. Boston’s Game 3 loss was a 19-8 drubbing, but the Red Sox took the next four games, including a 10-3 rout in Game 7.
No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series, although eight teams have come back from being down 3-1. Only three times has an NHL team come back to win a playoff series after being down 3-0. Toronto against Detroit in the 1942 Stanley Cup final, the New York Islanders catching Pittsburgh in the 1975 quarterfinals, and Philadelphia beating Boston in the 2010 Eastern Conference final.
In golf, the U.S. team in 1999 came back from a 10-6 deficit to Europe entering the final day and won 14 1/2 to 13 1/2. In 2012 the Americans memorably turned the tables—in the “Miracle at Medinah’’—after they too trailed 10-6 going into the final day.