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AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- In 1995, hungry and modestly funded Team New Zealand won the America's Cup and took it away from the United States for the second time.
In 2000, it became the first non-American team to mount a successful defense of the Auld Mug. This team had become something special and raised the bar in the world's premier sailing competition.
When that event finished in February 2000, there was an upheaval. Russell Coutts, skipper of the dominant '95 and 2000 Team New Zealand, was hired by a Swiss syndicate named Alinghi. Financed by a young billionaire sailor from Switzerland named Ernesto Bertarelli, Alinghi and Coutts assembled a strong core of talented sailors, many former Team New Zealand members, and behind-the-scenes teammates who could provide the tools to make the new team successful.
New Zealanders were shocked and angered to lose Coutts and many of their top sailors, who followed him or went to other teams. Backup helmsman Dean Barker picked up the reins, and with design-team leader Tom Schnackenberg tried to rally what remained of Team New Zealand. The team fought for its life, perhaps hoping Coutts and his new team would struggle in their first challenger series.
Fate has a way of forcing issues, and Alinghi won the Louis Vuitton challenger series and races Team New Zealand in the America's Cup starting next weekend. (The first race is 7-9:30 p.m. EST Friday on ESPN2.) It will be a match between the master and student, a classic battle of two competitors who know each other well but have followed different paths.
Barker is the soft-spoken, humble young helmsman for Team New Zealand. At 29, this will be Barker's second America's Cup, which hardly makes him a veteran. But Barker is a former match-racing world champion, and as backup helmsman for the last America's Cup he steered in the last race that clinched the event.
Coutts, 40, is aggressive and headstrong. An Olympic gold medalist, he won the Match Racing World Championships three times and was the No. 1 skipper on the world match-racing circuit for long periods. This is his fifth America's Cup.
Team New Zealand has a innovative idea around which it has centered its boat. Called the hula, it's basically a second hull attached in the aft section, mirroring the real hull but making the boat sail as if it's longer than rules allow. Exploiting this loophole means that in a breeze it should have an edge.
But is it fast in light air? In what other areas has Team New Zealand made developments? And how far has it come compared to the challengers? No one knows.
Alinghi's sailors have a wealth of experience in America's Cup racing and match racing. They also have the strength of a core team that has been together for years. They dominated the Louis Vuitton series, losing only three times in four months of racing.
New Zealand and the world wait anxiously for this match. If Barker wins, Team New Zealand's philosophy will be vindicated and the country will have stamped its dominance on the sport.
If Alinghi wins we will have lived during the Russell Coutts era. He'll become a legend.
And if Alinghi wins, the America's Cup goes to Europe for the first time since it began in 1851. The Swiss likely will conduct the event on the Mediterranean. The sport would get a huge influx of interest and millions of people will be exposed to racing. It's a win-win situation.
-- Ed Baird is a world-class sailor from St. Petersburg.