Sports

Peter Burling uses calm as a sporting weapon

Team New Zealand’s innovation and Peter Burling’s ineffable calm have returned the America’s Cup to New Zealand.

New Zealand has won back the America’s Cup, in the process avenging one of the most humiliating capitulations in sport and perhaps justifying the vast government investment which facilitated this epic plot to regain it. Everything we imagine to be true of us as a nation – the stoicism, the self-reliance, the creativity on a budget – it all really came through today.

It was accomplished largely due to the design innovation of the on-shore crew, which put cyclists in place of hand grinders, and the cool tactical precision of Peter Burling. Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill exuded an archetypal Australian confidence; he cracked jokes and seemed very comfortable playing the role of the bully exerting an extraordinary advantage. His advantages were both financial, in the infinite pockets of Larry Ellison, and in the arcane and maddening rules of the Cup, which allow the holder to largely set the rules. In this case it meant advantaging challengers that pledged to maintain Oracle’s vision for the Cup, which only Team New Zealand declined, and allowing the holders to race in the challengers’ series.

That they won it and gifted Team New Zealand a scoreline of -1 to start the Cup proper only helped cement the David and Goliath cliché. Team New Zealand looked shaky in limping through, from that stomach-turning capsize to a halting performance against Ben Ainslie Racing.

Yet from the first race of the finals they were clearly the faster boat: smooth, strong, stable. The design which decreased their resistance while increasing power will be remembered as one of the more intuitive innovations in sport, and one complex enough that on unveiling in February there was no time for competitors to bed in a matched version.

Gutted

As important as the design was Burling’s newfound prowess in the starting box. The narrative heading in was that Spithill had his measure in this critical area, yet Burling comprehensively dominated him. From the back foot Sptihill pushed and probed but was forever taking riskier options to make up yawning gaps. It succeeded only once, and even then by a slender margin.

Watching the Cup I remembered a day spent sailing with Burling. It was early 2014 and I was profiling him for a magazine. At the time he was an Olympic sailor with a burgeoning reputation, but not a lot more. We were in 49ers, the boat on which he and partner Blair Tuke – another key ingredient of this win – made their early reputation and would go on to win gold in Rio.

“If they’re not jostling or colliding or or capsizing they’re not really trying,” their coach Hamish Wilcox told me of the class, and in that way they were like the larger America’s Cup class he would soon move into: small, whippy, incredibly fast.

Burling was already marked by some as an inevitability to take Dean Barker’s role, though not yet well-known to the wider public. He admitted it was his goal – not just to test Barker, but to take him. The kid had a  self-possession which struck you from the first, a cerebral quality amid the chaos of high level sport.

“It’s a massive game of chess,” he told me later. “You’ve got all these moving parts that you’re trying to make fit.

“That’s the cool thing about yachting – it’s making the correct decision more than the other guy.”

This morning we watched as Burling made his last round of great decisions, returning a Cup which slipped away 14 years ago and seemed fated to never return after 2013’s agony. New Zealand’s quest to win it back has looked forlorn and cursed for much of its run, yet here we are, in control of this ancient and strange trophy, and able to bring it home and make its rules again.

“It’s exactly what we came here to do,” said Burling afterwards. That was true of every team. The difference is, Burling did it.

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