Dennis Conner

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Dennis Conner

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Happy 74th birthday to “Mister America’s Cup.”

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The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy in the world.  Affectionately known as the “Auld Mug,” the trophy is awarded to the winner of a series of match races between two sailing yachts.  One yacht, known as the defender, represents the yacht club that currently holds the trophy and the second yacht, known as the challenger, represents the club that is challenging for the cup.  The timing of each match is determined between the two sides.

In 1851, a match race was held around England’s Isle of Wight between a British boat and a New York Yacht Club schooner called America.  After the race, the Royal Yacht Squadron—one of the most prestigious clubs in the world—awarded a trophy, renamed America’s Cup after the winning yacht, to the New York Yacht Club.

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Dennis Conner is the only skipper in history to lose the America’s Cup and win it back.  Born in San Diego, California, on this date in 1942, Conner was raised in Point Loma by parents that could not afford–and had no interest in–sailboat racing.  Curious by nature, young Dennis hung around the San Diego Yacht Club while learning at the feet of some of SDYC’s best sailors.  After graduating from San Diego State University in the early 1960s, he stayed in his hometown and started a carpet and drapery manufacturing business.  He also sailed boats.  In 1971, Conner piloted Menace to a gold medal in the Star Class at the World Championships held on Puget Sound.  At the Montreal Olympics five years later, Conner captured the bronze medal in the Tempest [two man keelboat] Class.  In 1977, he claimed another Star World Championships title in Kiel, Germany.

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Until 1983, the America’s Cup was just a boat race for wealthy American yachtsman.  For 132 years, the New York Yacht Club had maintained a grip on the cup [which was bolted to a plinth and displayed in the club’s lobby].  Since arriving in New York in 1851, the trophy had not changed hands through 24 challenges from foreign yacht clubs.  NYYC members threatened–only half-jokingly– that if the cup were ever lost, the offending American skipper’s head would replace it in the display case.  In 1983, Alan Bond, a flamboyant and controversial Australian businessman who had made three unsuccessful challenges between 1974 and 1980, returned for a fourth challenge.  Wielding a symbolic gold wrench he claimed would be used to unbolt the cup from its plinth at NYYC, Bond vowed he would claim the trophy for Australia.

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In September 1983, Alan Bond arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, with Australia II, a wing-keeled 12 meter challenger designed by Ben Lexcen.  The controversial wing-keel [an underwater spoiler designed to add increased stability and a lower center of gravity] changed 12 meter racing the way the slider changed baseball and the curved stick changed hockey.  For a public bored with U.S. dominance of America’s Cup racing, it was a change for the better.  Dennis Conner, who had successfully defended the cup in 1974 and 1980, captained the 1983 defender, the red hulled Liberty.  The U.S. yacht won the first two races of the best-of-seven series.  The Australia II took two of the next three, setting up a sixth race for the first time in America’s Cup history.  After the Aussie boat easily won the sixth race, a seventh and deciding race commenced four days later.  The “Race of the Century” took place September 26.  Racing in light winds, Liberty won the start by eight seconds.  Under relentless pressure, the lead changed hands three times before Australia II crossed the finish line first, 41 seconds ahead of Liberty, to win the cup.  Conner, the first American skipper to lose a challenge in 132 years, was devastated.

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When the cup was lost, Americans fumed.  The trophy had to be recaptured, and winning it back became Dennis Conner’s personal obsession.  He formed his own syndicate and raised funds to mount a challenge.  Representing the San Diego Yacht Club, he embarked upon a three-year campaign to reclaim the cup.  Racing off the western coast of Australia during the first week of February 1987, Dennis Connor led the Stars and Stripes challenger to a decisive sweep of Royal Perth Yacht Club’s defender, Kookaburra III, to reclaim the America’s Cup.  Lexcen, who had designed Australia II, said, “We don’t have any sailors in Australia; we have rowers.  But the big thing is, even when we did win [in 1983], we were using a rifle against a club and Dennis Conner still almost beat us.”  Aboard Stars and Stripes, Conner successfully defended the cup the following year.

Dennis Conner fundamentally changed the America’s Cup, and racing in general, from an amateur to professional status.  Before the 1980s, America’s Cup competitors were mostly amateurs who took time off to compete.  Conner insisted on year-round training with a new focus on physical fitness, preparation, and practice.  The changes led to the return of professional crews in sailing, which had hardly been seen since the 1930s.  Connor won the America’s Cup four times.  From 1987 through 2003, he was skipper of Stars and Stripes.  Mr. Conner won four Southern Ocean Racing Cups, was a three-time U.S. Yachtsman of the Year, and is one of only four Americans in the World Sailing’s Hall of Fame.  In 1987, Conner appeared on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated magazines—rare air for a sailor—and was named ABC’s Wide World of Sports [Daily Dose, 7/8/15] Athlete of the Year.

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