“If you quit once, it becomes a habit. Never quit.” The words of the great Michael Jordan whose quotes seem to translate and transcend all sports, all athletes, all of the greats of our day. And down in Sydney, we had the greats of sailing on display this weekend, not quitting, performing under pressure, closing out when it mattered and coming straight back from utter despondency. There’s a new world order emerging. The King is dead. Long live the King.
The local headlines down under will all scream ‘Slingsby’ and let’s be clear the coronation is in full flow. Us voters gave him a Rolex earlier in the month but he’s stolen the crown jewels now and sits regally on the top throne of world sailing. Tom aced the SailGP final on a fresh to frightening day out on Sydney Harbour with crew-work in the breeze that was like a well-oiled motor that needed no element of luck to ride like a dream.
Apply the pressure and something clicks in that Aussie Team, no-one, not the USA and the might of Spithill nor the young Spaniards led by Phil Robertson, could get close. They were spectators to a masterclass. Passengers on the Slingsby train.
But take your eye away from the headline and the stand-out performance was elsewhere. Having cobbled and hobbled together the Japanese rig and the British hull after yesterday’s sapping crash that removed the bow in dramatic fashion, very little was expected of Nathan Outteridge.
Just being on the start-line was a triumph of engineering, of sportsmanship on Ben Ainslie’s part (and a lot of apologies), of grit and a real, palpable determination that the show must go on but, by heck, what a show Nathan put on. It was like watching Ayrton Senna at Donington Park in the wet in 1993. It was Michael Jordan against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1990. It was Hagler versus Hearns in 1985. It was utterly amazing to watch.
Outteridge came out smoking, smarting and twitching like he and the team had a lot to prove – to themselves as much as others. It was almost as if he were fighting for his life. You rarely see sailing like this. Clearly the laser-eyes of Grant Dalton, Kevin Shoebridge and the whole of the Team New Zealand juggernaut were on him but what they witnessed was genius on display.
No wonder Dalts was so damned confident of his signing ahead of the skipper announcement. He knew the potential of Outteridge and the sheer, unrelenting pressure he applied to a resurgent Pete Burling on the Kiwi boat in Race 4 was just astonishing. It took a penalty but the scorecard showed a win and this was quickly followed up by another to be the stand-out performer of the weekend. It was other-worldly, ‘Outter this World’ if you pardon the pun.
The MVP and Player of the Day accolades deserved to be showered on Nathan Outteridge and his absolute unit of a crew. Wry smiles will be etched and chuckles will be offered on the grizzled faces of the Team New Zealand hierarchy. They know what they’ve got and it’s a potent, coming force in world sailing that is just set to get better and better.
Quite why Outteridge was overlooked for AC36 remains a complete mystery but how he handled himself then and what he’s done since is exemplary and testament to what a fine sportsman he is. He deserves the million dollar shot in San Francisco and everything is building beautifully to a stunning year in 2022. Wonderful to watch.
A quick word if I may about Ben Ainslie and the British team. It’s been a humbling weekend for the guys and I’ve yet to see a more glum and despondent Ben than the Instagram post he put up yesterday, effectively apologising for simply not seeing Nathan Outteridge and wholly owning the blame for the horror crash where we were lucky not to see broken bones or worse.
It’s a horrible place for Ben right now. Commentators and the armchair Admirals were quick to jump on this incident and roll up the red carpet on his stellar sailing career. For sure, the newly appointed Director of Sport at Ineos, Dave Brailsford, will be watching. Analysis will take place and inevitable questions will be asked behind closed doors.
I maintain it’s a racing incident. I’ll die on that hill. And we’re going to see a lot more of this as SailGP fires up and gets ever more competitive. Next year the teams will go to another level again as the America’s Cup works teams get more and more involved. Pressure makes mistakes. Errors happen. I think it’s way too early to start doubting Ben’s brilliance and start looking for alternatives – no-one but no-one comes close at this level, at the very apex, from these shores.
At the end of the day, Ben apologised and then did the absolute right thing in throwing every resource around getting Outteridge back on the water. That was classy and what we have come to expect of Ben and his team. He’ll be back. He’s good at comebacks and it’s not the time to call into question his age nor his talent. Yes the young guns are looking good but Ben proved more than a lot just before that regatta and season ending ding. You can’t write him off.
But the tale of the tape will show Tom Slingsby as the winner of the Sydney SailGP and what a thing to do on home waters. Electric for the Aussies to sign off 2021 in such style and set up a showdown in San Francisco in March that has it all. Slingsby versus Spithill versus Outteridge for a million bucks – you could hardly script it better. I could make the case for any of them to win. I can’t call it. You can’t call it.
This is sport. This is everything. SailGP is the business.