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James Spithill proud to skipper international crew for Oracle Team USA in America's Cup

James Spithill Lloyd Images/Getty Images

James Spithill is accepting of his fortune to be in Bermuda. A comfortable two-hour flight from New York, the 181 islands are known and visited most often for their clear blue waters and pink sand beaches. For a yachtsman such as Spithill, the natural harbours and surrounding reefs form a perfect arena for him to enjoy his chosen profession. Still that's not why he's so fortunate, not even for a sailor chasing his third straight America's Cup title. Spithill, considered to be the best match racer on water, is in Bermuda to contest his fourth America's Cup having all but lost his left arm less than 12 months ago.

The Australian-born sailor, who first climbed onto a windsurfer as a 4-year-old before winning his first race at the Avalon Yacht Club at the age of 10, sustained an elbow injury in completing the 2015 Rolex Sydney to Hobart aboard race winner Comanche. The injury, tennis elbow, caused him pain without prompting him to stop racing; he accepted he could no longer race through the pain only after an incident during an America's Cup World Series race in the UK in July.

"I felt it half pull at that stage and we planned to have the surgery after the meet," Spithill tells ESPN. "But on the Saturday I tore it off the bone. Then I raced Sunday with it like that, which obviously made it worse.

"Anyway, they did the surgery ... I rushed back into it, didn't give it the time it needed, and I obviously got it wet and then I unfortunately picked up the pretty bad infection. I was very, very lucky to get away with it at the end of the day."

Very, very lucky?

Spithill underwent a series of emergency surgeries and 10 weeks on an intravenous drip in 2016 to avoid what would likely have been a career-ending amputation. Now, he is back on the water among the world's greatest sailors in Bermuda to battle for the oldest trophy in international sport, the America's Cup. Sailing on wing-sailed catamarans, the six competing teams are manned by an international cast featuring sailing royalty, including the UK's Sir Ben Ainslie, Australian Olympic champion Nathan Outteridge and Spithill.

Spithill, the modern-day cup legend from Australia who now calls the U.S. and Bermuda home, is primed to etch his name once again in the America's Cup history book. His long association with the Cup began when he debuted in the 2000 series as a 20-year-old, for his country of birth, before becoming the youngest ever skipper to win it in 2010, for the U.S. In 2013 he successfully defended the famous trophy, overcoming enormous odds -- and further torn tendons, in his right elbow -- to beat challenger Emirates Team New Zealand.

Spithill explains to ESPN, when asked about his change of allegiance, that sailing now is about competing with the best, against the best, and that staunchly representing your country of birth is now seen really only in the Olympic Games. Four-time Olympic champion Ainslie is representing his homeland, skippering the UK's Land-Rover BAR team, but does so only after sailing alongside Spithill in the victorious Oracle Team USA team in 2013, and the Australian puts the international nature of the various crews purely down to picking the "best men for the job".

"When we look at hiring people, whether that be in an engineering role or one of the athletes, we base it on their talent as opposed to where they're from," he tells ESPN.

"I'm actually very proud to be part of a team that has that culture. I obviously have a bit of a connection [to the USA] because my wife is American and my two boys were born in America, but I'm really happy with this team, a team with a lot of nationalities, and we're proud to be representing the States."

The teams in Bermuda have been sailing against each other for two years in the Louis Vuitton America's Cup World Series, accumulating points that carry over into the America's Cup Qualifiers that commence with Spithill and Oracle Team USA sailing against Groupama Team France in the opening round-robin race. Starting on Friday, and running for two weeks, the qualifiers, a series of races in the sparkling waters of Bermuda's Great Sound, will determine which of the five challengers will take on Spithill's crew for the America's Cup.

As part of an intensive and thorough preparation, Spithill moved his wife, Jennifer, and two young sons to Bermuda. He feels this will give his team an advantage over the challengers.

"We've been living here for two-and-a-half years now, fully set up and operational. I think it has been [advantageous]; staying here and training here certainly helps the team. You have your family here, the kids are at school -- they're all settled in, kind of got our groove together -- you may say that doesn't matter, but it does. We were looking for any kind of competitive edge, so setting up really early was part of the strategy. "

Spithill has always been prepared to seek an advantage, famously taking up flying to better understand aerodynamics in order to improve his sailing.

"When we stopped using the conventional sail, we went to the big carbon-fibre rigid wing, I just figured the best way to learn about aerodynamics and wings was to get a [flying] licence," he explains.

"That was the position I took, and there are so many crossovers between flying and sailing; I think especially now it's a lot more three-dimensional with the foiling."

In the never-ending endeavour to feature the fastest boats, America's Cup competitors agreed two years ago to use 48-foot, foiling catamarans for the 2017 campaign. The most noticeable feature of these boats is the way they rise up out of the water on hydrofoils -- "foils" - that are winged attachments at the end of long slender keels. The effect is that the wet surface area of the boat is greatly decreased, reducing drag and increasing speed.

The catamarans will be flying around the course at speeds approaching 50 knots (92 kph or 57 mph) achieved from wind speeds as little as 20 knots, and Spithill is in awe of their capabilities.

"It has been called Formula 1 on water in the past; unfortunately with the old boats, they were so slow, you couldn't really say that ... but now it really is. These boats can do four times the speed they used to. They've got the power, and it's pretty incredible just how efficient they are now."

Spithill laughed when asked about any potential fears about the fabled Bermuda Triangle, seeing no downside to the event's picturesque location.

"I think part of the fascination with the Triangle is that people aren't quite sure exactly where it is," Spithill says. "But I think Bermuda really is paradise, it's an incredible place. "It's two hours from Manhattan and from an event point of view it's got the perfect race track for these boats; it's like a natural amphitheatre. It's protected by reefs around Bermuda and the cool thing is from a television point of view as well is we get the American audience and the European audience.

"It really ticks all the boxes and already we've seen the amount of hype that's going into this event," Spithill says of the competition to come. "We're into every territory now, pretty much worldwide, in terms of broadcast deals. It's pretty cool to see where the sport's going."