- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"He's a hard-driving guy. And that's what he's made us into. He makes you into a hard-ass."
To have it all, first you've got to want it all. Dennis Conner has never, ever, not wanted it all. A job well done is satisfaction enough for some people, but not for sailing's maestro. Every conquest on his path through his sport has been no more than a promontory from which to chart the route to the next conquest. Even the America's Cup of 1987 was just another stepping-stone.
Less than 24 hours after Stars & Stripes beat Kookaburra III for the fourth and last time, a victory that left no questions unanswered as to the relative merits of boats, helmsmen or crews, Conner was headed back out to Gage Roads to put Stars & Stripes through her paces once more, for the benefit of a cigarette manufacturer whose helicopter-borne camera crew hovered noisily overhead. As he cleared the entrance to Fremantle's Fishing Boat Harbour, Conner said, "O.K., guys, this is the first day of the 1990 campaign."
Conner is not an eloquent speaker. Except when he is describing a 12-meter match race, he has trouble squeezing his tumbling thoughts into tidy verbal packages. His delivery contains the hint of a stammer that worsens when his emotions are near the surface. "He can get so emotional he spaces out," says Malin Burnham, head of the Stars & Stripes syndicate and one of Conner's oldest friends. "He loses touch with the world."
After his Liberty had lost to Australia II in 1983, Conner became withdrawn in his disappointment. This time, as he crossed the finish line 1:59 ahead of Kookaburra III, Conner turned to his tactician Tom Whidden and said, "That was fun. I'm sorry it's over." But by the time he had reached Stars & Stripes's dock and security guards had whisked him through the crowds and toward the office 50 yards away, the reality of what he had done began to wash over him. Face to face with Brian Burke, the Premier of Western Australia, Conner could only mutter, "I appreciate your stopping by. I appreciate your stopping by." And again, almost vacantly this time, "I appreciate your stopping by." Burke was just the first of many politicians who would share the victory spotlight with Conner. On Monday, two days after an exuberant hometown victory celebration in San Diego, President Reagan congratulated the skipper and his crew at the White House.
Stars & Stripes had led Kooka III around every mark in every race of the America's Cup series. The last 12-meter to do that was Bus Mosbacher's Intrepid in 1967. The Stars & Stripes campaign, meaning all of it—the sailing, the science and the shoreside support—was, in the end, so thoroughly right and so devastatingly effective that it served to dull the pain of Australia's heartbreaking loss of the trophy it took so long to win (see page 90).
The role assigned to Conner was an odd one. He became an alien, outsize version of Australia's favorite kind of folk hero, the "little Aussie battler," the fellow who gets knocked down but always bounces up to fight again. Now, to American sailors who have suffered before various Conner juggernauts for years, and to the American yachting press which has often been subjected to a vindictive streak in Conner's complex nature, an aspect not usually shown in public, this turn of events was slightly absurd, rather like the Red Sox developing a soft spot for the Yankees. Nevertheless, the affection was real and it was fully expressed by a sign held by one of the thousands of Aussies who came to Fremantle the last day to welcome home the victor and the vanquished, WELL DONE DENNIS, YOU 'BASTARD' it read. The quotation marks around the epithet were in the shape of hearts.
Perhaps in response to the warm embrace in which he found himself in Fremantle, Conner has lately exhibited in public an appealing side that his friends maintain has been there all along. At the press conference after the final race, Conner was in the midst of giving his condolences to Kookaburra skipper Iain Murray and syndicate chief Kevin Parry when Murray's dog, Cliff, found his way onstage and took his place at his master's side. The audience began to laugh and Conner, puzzled, said, "I'm not trying to be funny." When the laughter not only continued but Murray and Parry joined in, Conner looked to his right, down the length of the speakers' table, and then he, too, began to laugh. "I've been upstaged by a dog," he said. Then he added, "I thought I got rid of Liberty." The laughter exploded. It was just a moment, but it was infused with more spontaneous good feeling than any that had preceded it in five months. Conner capped his triumphant performance when someone asked where he would vote to hold the next America's Cup. Without a second's hesitation Conner shouted into his microphone, "Fremantle, Western Australia!" That brought the house down.
The start of the final race was reminiscent of a younger, more aggressive Conner. At the 10-minute gun he did what he had done in every previous start: He steered his big, blue, not-very-agile Stars & Stripes into the spectator fleet at the right end of the line. Kookaburra's starting helmsman, Peter Gilmour, followed along, seeking to engage Conner in a close-quarter duel in which Kooka III, the more maneuverable boat, would have a distinct advantage. For several minutes Gilmour hung on Conner's stern, even when Conner attempted to shake him off by jibing sharply around one of the spectator boats. Eventually Conner led Gilmour back toward the starting line and on the way allowed himself to be engaged in a short series of serpentine loops, perhaps merely to let Gilmour know he still could go toe-to-toe if he chose. With a minute to go and both boats stalled head-to-wind at the line, Kooka III took controlling position, Gilmour appeared to have Conner trapped in position to be forced over the line early. But Conner managed to duck away, then squeeze back to the line just inside the buoy end. Gilmour had time to tack away onto port and cross the line at least even with Stars & Stripes, but he chose instead to pursue and wound up crossing five seconds behind, and eating Connor's dirty air.
Once across the line, Gilmour had to tack away for clean air, and when the boats first crossed courses, 1:12 into the race, Stars & Stripes was already two boat lengths ahead. Murray took the wheel of Kooka III, but the race and the America's Cup were already lost. The superior straight-line speed of Stars & Stripes left Kookaburra's crew no recourse but to watch helplessly as the lead of the smoke-blue boat from San Diego stretched to 1:59 at the finish.