Titans at the Gate

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Few rivalries in the world of sports match the face-to-face intensity of Russell Coutts versus Jimmy Spithill. Though little known outside of sailing circles, the feud between the two America’s Cup captains is deep-rooted and fierce, an underlying enmity that extends to each of their many encounters on the course.

Coutts, a 51-year-old New Zealander, is the world’s most-decorated America’s Cup sailor, having won yachting’s main event four times, from 1995 to 2010, for three teams and three countries. He is an Olympic gold medalist, a two-time World Sailor of the Year, and the closest thing the sport has to a celebrity athlete.

Spithill, an Aussie who was just 5 years old when Coutts won his gold medal in 1984, is the up-and-comer who is challenging the New Zealander’s reign at the top. “Coutts is the most successful guy in the game, and we’ve raced each other a lot,” says Spithill, who in 2010, at the age of 30, became the youngest skipper ever to win the America’s Cup. “For me, losing to him is the worst thing that could happen.”

Heightening the rivalry between these two champions is the fact that they sail for the same team: Coutts and Spithill both captain boats for Oracle Team USA, which is owned and funded by the tech giant’s CEO, Larry Ellison. The American billionaire is himself a skilled sailor; he was one of the 11 crew members aboard the Spithill-helmed boat—a 113-foot-long, 90- foot-wide sloop-rigged trimaran with a 223-foot-tall wing sail—that won the 33rd America’s Cup three years ago. With the victory, Oracle Team USA (then known as BMW Oracle Racing) earned the right to house the America’s Cup trophy at the organization’s home base, the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco.

According to the America’s Cup bylaws, as the current defender of the cup, Oracle Team USA must host the first official challenge made on the trophy. The team will finally do so this September, when the oldest active prize in international sports will be up for grabs in the 34th America’s Cup. Oracle Team USA will defend the trophy on its home water of the San Francisco Bay—perhaps the grandest stage the race has ever known—on its own terms, and in a spectacular fashion never before seen in the event’s 162-year history.

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