Oracle Team USA celebrates after beating Emirates Team New Zealand in America's Cup race 18 on September 24, 2013, in San Francisco. Following seven consecutive wins, Oracle Team USA is now tied with New Zealand heading into Wednesday's final race. (Photo credit: Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images)
Douglas Robson, USA TODAY Sports
SAN FRANCISCO - A week ago Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill was selling a comeback not many were buying.
Down by seven points to challenger Emirates Team New Zealand and facing near defeat, Spithill said through clenched teeth that he liked his position and the chance to orchestrate "one hell of a comeback."
"I think the question is: Imagine if these guys lost from here?" he said. "What an upset that would be. They have almost got it in the bag."
Unbelievably, defender Oracle has nearly punched its way out.
With another two victories Tuesday, the Americans are not only alive. They are on the precipice of the greatest comeback in 162 years of America's Cup racing.
Trailing 8-1 in the first-to-nine series, Oracle has locked the contest at 8-8.
The U.S. team backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison has actually won nine of its last 11 races but was docked a two-race deficit at the regatta's start for cheating in a warm-up race using smaller boats.
Wednesday, winds permitting, features a winner-take-all clash on San Francisco Bay in what has become at 19 days the longest America's Cup since its inception in 1851. The race will be televised by NBC Sports Network beginning at 4 p.m. ET.
"It's the most exciting day of all of our lives and we wouldn't want to be anywhere else," said a beaming Spithill, the 34-year old hard-charging Australian who has Oracle back from the brink. "Mate, bring on tomorrow."
No team has come back from multiple match points since John Bertrand's Australia II reversed a 3-1 deficit in 1983 to win 4-3 and wrest the Cup from Dennis Conner's Liberty, ending the longest international winning streak in sports history.
After numerous delays and postponements, Tuesday's wind and tide conditions were ideal. In the opening race, New Zealand miscalculated its position in the prestart box and twice made contact with Oracle, which had the right of way. It resulted in two penalties that allowed the Americans to surge ahead to an insurmountable lead. They won by 27 seconds.
"It was just an absolute shocker," New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said on TV of his poor decision-making at the start. "We tried to make a bit of a play, mix it up but we got ourselves in a really bad spot."
In the second contest, the Kiwis won the start for the first time in several races but were overtaken due to some tactical mistakes and the suddenly superior American boat in the upwind leg, once their Achilles' heel. Oracle trailed by 7 seconds at the second mark but blew past the Kiwis and crossed the finish line by a comfortable 54 seconds.
Afterwards, Oracle's 11-man crew exchanged hugs, handshakes and high-fives. One sailor reached over and patted the side of the 72-foot catamarans that weigh nearly 7-tons and are propelled by carbon wings that rise 13 stories high.
Barker, who sailed flawlessly as the Kiwis smoked Italian and Swedish challengers earlier in the summer, sat on back of soaring AC72 catamaran staring out at the San Francisco skyline as New Zealand general manager Grant Dalton and tactician Ray Davies hashed out the day's losses.
Early in the regatta the Kiwis were cleaning Oracle's clock. But changes to its boat and crew, couple with superior strategy and deft sailing, have completely turned the tables.
Both teams face enormous pressure. Both have reason to believe they should have won the Cup by now.
Without the two-race penalty, Oracle would have clinched the Cup with its first victory Tuesday, its ninth overall.
New Zealand led in three previous races nullified by winds, including one when they held a massive 1-mile lead but could not complete the course under the 40-minute time limit due to light breezes.
Still, the Kiwis have had seven chances to bring the Auld Mug back to Auckland. Now the battered and bruised team must mentally regroup in a scenario what was virtually unfathomable a week ago.
"We know that if we put the pieces together then we'll be successful," said Barker, the unflappable but clearly dispirited helmsman who continued to insist his team could win.
Asked what the Kiwis - winners of the America's Cup in 1995 and 2000 and losers in 2003 -- could do at this point after a complete momentum shift, Barker said: "Try to be first across the finish line."
Spithill said Tuesday he would stick with the underdog status he gave his outfit in recent days as they clawed back into the competition.
"I'm just going to keep running with that," he said while praising his team's courage in the face of adversity.
"You can either get yourself wobbly at the knees or you can just look straight down the barrel (of a gun) and smile," he added. "That's exactly what this team has done."
So there it is: A competition that witnessed more than its share of financial, legal and tragic setbacks has now reached a dream, do-or-die climax -- a win-win for sailing whichever team comes out on top.
"I don't know what everyone has been doing here the last couple of weeks," Glenn Ashby, New Zealand's wing trimmer, cheekily told reporters. "The regatta actually starts tomorrow."