“I am sure the surgery will solve the problem, but it is unlikely he will ever be any good at sports.”
Two-time America’s Cup winner Jimmy Spithill was 12 years old when a doctor in Sydney, Australia told him his dreams of becoming an athlete would never come to fruition.
He was born with a right leg five centimeters (2 inches) shorter than his left and a right foot that was three sizes smaller than his other foot — also missing a toe while two others were webbed.
Spithill’s parents decided he needed an operation to alleviate the strain on his lower back.
His limp made Spithill the subject of bullying as he entered high school, an experience he recalls in his new book “Chasing the Cup: My America’s Cup journey.”
“I can still remember what he said,” Spithill told CNN by phone from Los Angeles, adding the doctor’s assessment was “one of the key motivators” behind his drive to succeed.
“The way I look back on it was when people told me I couldn’t do something that really motivated me,” the Australian said.
Youngest skipper to win the Cup
Eighteen years after he underwent surgery –which eventually ended his limp at the age of 15 — when both legs were the same length, Spithill became the youngest skipper to win the America’s Cup in 2010 with the BMW Oracle team in Valencia, Spain.
Spithill grew up in remote Elvina Bay, 35 kilometers north of Sydney, with his parents and sister. The town could only be reached by water, explaining his life-long love for all things water and sailing.
In his book, he writes compellingly about being the subject of bullying while at school.
Although his physical shortcomings hadn’t stopped him from doing well in sports, his limp turned him into what he described in the book as “entertainment for bullies at school — a young, red-headed and freckle-faced kid who also limped was a prime target for their verbal and physical abuse.”
But, he concluded, “this bullying was a bit tough for me to cope with then, but in the long run I think it made me a better person, giving me a thicker skin and greater determination to succeed.”
He took up boxing in his teens, and credited one of the coaches in his gym for making sure he stayed on the straight and narrow as he struggled with his parents’ divorce and “was heading down the wrong path.”
“The thing I loved about the boxing was that I got there because of the bullying, I got sick and tired of it,” Spithill said. “If something’s not going right, you can just keep taking that, day-in, day-out, or you have to face your fear and say ‘that’s enough, I am doing something about it.'”
Winning and losing
In 2013, Spithill spearheaded one of sport’s greatest comebacks, leading Oracle Team USA to an improbable victory from 8-1 down to retain the America’s Cup against Emirates Team New Zealand on San Francisco Bay.
But Spithill’s win streak in sport’s oldest international competition ended at this year’s America’s Cup in Bermuda’s Great Sound, where Oracle Team USA were beaten 7-1 by the New Zealanders and its 26-year-old skipper, Peter Burling.
Three months on, Spithill partly blames himself for the defeat.
“As a team, we were ultimately just too conservative and the other team were a lot more bold than us,” he said. “It’s a tough balance you have to strike, because if you are too bold, then you can also lose the race, you can push the boat too far, or the systems.”
“For myself, throughout the whole campaign, there were some key moments when I should have gone with my instincts, whether it be a decision off the water or a decision on the water,” he said.
“The America’s Cup is a technology game and really the big question is how hard you push things, how extreme do you go on some of your design and engineering systems?,” he said.
“One team were a little bit more extreme and pushed the boundaries more,” he added. “When I look back when we won the America’s Cup the previous two occasions, we were similar. We pushed as well. So potentially, maybe the fact that we won the first two made us a little bit more conservative.”
America’s Cup 2021?
Spithill isn’t sure if he’ll take part in the next America’s Cup, to be staged in 2021 in New Zealand. That race will be sailed in traditional monohull boats instead of the multihull yachts used in the last three editions of sailing’s most prestigious event.
“I wanted to race the day after we lost, to go out and reverse the result,” he said. “But it’s too early to say really. I need to see more detail to really understand the boat and the rules and really think it through.”
Spithill said he regretted the return to monohull boats.
“I thought we were headed in the right directions with the cats,” said Spithill, referring to the spectacular catamarans that glided over the sea on foils at breakneck speeds. “What I really liked was that it appealed to non-sailors. But that’s the nature of the America’s Cup.”