The Comeback King: Jimmy Spithill

A talk with the skipper and helmsman for Oracle Team USA.

Oracle Team USA, America's Cup
In 2010, Jimmy Spithill became the youngest winner of the America's Cup ever.Sam Greenfield

By any yardstick, Jimmy Spithill, skipper for Oracle Team USA, keeps his cool, be it while staring down an 8-1 deficit against Emirates Team New Zealand in the 34th America’s Cup or when pulling serious Gs with the Blue Angels aboard an F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Moreover, he’s a student of sports psychology. Take AC34’s press conferences, where he brazenly assured reporters that ­OTUSA could — and would — win races. Call it head games, but ­Spithill helmed OTUSA to the greatest comeback in sports his­tory. Now he’s aiming for a trifecta of consecutive Cup wins, a feat that’s only been achieved by three other skippers: Charlie Barr, H.S. Vanderbilt and Spithill’s mentor, Sir Russell Coutts.


How important was your AC34 press-conference psychology?

America's Cup, Jimmy Spithill
Jimmy Spithill skippered Oracle Team USA’s USA-17 to the biggest comeback in sports history during the 34th America’s Cup in 2013.Ricardo Pinto


The press conference is about trying to get into the other team’s head, and I think it helped. You can win as many press conferences as you want, but if you don’t win on the water, it’s a waste of time.

Probably the biggest [improvement] was the way we started sailing the boat. Midway through [the Cup], I was having issues with [rudder] cavitation, especially when turning at the reach mark when we hit high speeds. One night [designer Paul Bieker] had an idea, and I said, “Yeah, mate, go for it.” So he worked all through the night, himself and a couple of boatbuilders, shaping the rudder [fairings], getting them right.

That’s a pretty classic story, [but] there were so many of these little stories that all added up behind the scenes.


Do you prefer solo or team sports?


I like both, but I like team sports more. I think it’s a lot harder to get all of the coordination and personalities to click … but on the flip side, I think that [achieving a team] goal is much more satisfying.


Date of birth: June 28, 1979 Marital status: Married Children: two sons Hometown: Sydney, Australia Started sailing: age 5 Sailing team: Oracle Team USA Number of cups: 2000, 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013, 2017 Highest sailing achievement: two-time America's Cup winner


How do you sharpen your mental game?


It’s something that I’ve been looking into. Earlier this year, I tore the tennis-elbow tendon in my arm. … Typical me, I rushed back [after surgery], got it wet and picked up an infection. This put me in a lot of trouble, and I was really close to losing my arm. The upside is that I got to meet Dr. Rob Bray, one of the best brain and spine surgeons in the world, and he saved me.

He’s also involved in studies of the brain and the state of flow, which is when your brain gets locked in and nothing else matters. He has opened my eyes up to different worlds.

I think that competing is the best way to put yourself under pressure and see how you make decisions. There are a lot of options to get yourself fitter and stronger, but it’s actually quite hard to get a program to train your brain, but I’d argue that it’s the most important thing.


More than physical fitness?


The amount of decisions that the guys have to make, and the fact that they have to do it at exhaustion — that’s usually when you’ll make a mistake. ... You can have the sharpest brain, but if you haven’t got the physical side, there’s not going to be a spot on the boat for you.