Kiwis relish role as underdog
Auckland, New Zealand
NEW ZEALANDERS take their sports seriously. With a population roughly that of Philadelphia and a land area two-thirds the size of California, New Zealand cannot take on the world economically. It can't take it on militarily. It can't set international trends or tastes. What it can do is play the underdog. And as the Kiwi crews have proved repeatedly during preliminaries to the America's Cup finals, New Zealanders are unrelenting competitors, who love their role as David challenging the world's Goliaths.Skip to next paragraph
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Two-and-a-half years ago, when New Zealand launched its challenge for the America's Cup, now in the hands of Australia, it had never before participated in yachting's richest and most-famous event. It had no experience with 12-meter yachts. It did not have the money or technical expertise that the other competitors commanded. But as New Zealand and her crew sail in the challenger finals at Fremantle, Australia, this week against the lavishly backed Americans, it's clear they've got something else.
The winner will move on to compete for the America's Cup against an Australian boat in a best-of-seven series beginning Jan. 31. Over the last four months New Zealand has eliminated 12 other challengers from six countries in the preliminary rounds.
The United States, using vast technical and financial reserves in an effort to win back the cup held by the New York Yacht Club for more than 100 years, is represented in the finals by Stars & Stripes.
The odds against New Zealand are great - and indeed the Kiwis lost to the San Diego-based boat captained by Dennis Conner in Tuesday's opening race. New Zealand skipper Chris Dickson was not downcast, however, noting that this was a best-of-seven series, and that there was still plenty of racing left.
During preparations for the finals, Dickson and his companions played down the vast difference in resources between the two teams.
``You make a mistake in confusing money with professionalism,'' argues Jim Blair, trainer for New Zealand's crew.
An immigrant from Scotland 25 years ago, Mr. Blair is confident and evidently unsurprised by New Zealand's strong showing. ``There's something different about the Kiwi,'' he says. ``If I could bottle it, I'd make a fortune.''
Some say it's poise and sang-froid in the face of long odds, along with patience, modesty, and a fierce competitive spirit. When Conner contested New Zealand's unorthodox fiberglass construction, which resulted in an examination by Lloyd's of London and eventual exoneration, the Kiwi crew's response was: Don't get mad, get even.
New Zealand's yacht is the first-ever fiberglass entry in the America's Cup and only the third glass 12-meter ever built. The first two, built by the syndicate financing New Zealand's challenger, were raced against each other in last January's 12-meter world championships to test and refine the design. The resulting third boat, KZ-7 (now usually referred to as simply New Zealand), has proved fast enough to sweep her competitors and durable enough to withstand the stress of Fremantle's vicious seas. Dubbed the ``Plastic Fantastic'' by her grudging admirers, she's called ``Kiwi Magic'' at home.
If the yacht is proof of Kiwi magic, the crew embodies Kiwi determination. Since September 1985, when 180 yachtsmen reported to Auckland's Institute of Sports and Corporate Health, the New Zealand team has undergone exacting and lengthy training. While other teams use psychologists and motivators to keep them going during the long, hard slogging, these men seem to drive themselves, observers say.