America's Cup: How Life Has Changed for New Zealand's Winning Sailors

CNN/ Newswire | 11/8/2017, 7:25 a.m.
They carried the weight of a nation on their shoulders and were lauded as heroes when they returned home to ...
New Zealand's Winning Sailors

By Matt Majendie, for CNN

(CNN) -- They carried the weight of a nation on their shoulders and were lauded as heroes when they returned home to New Zealand after winning the America's Cup.

In Auckland, an estimated 90,000 people flocked to the streets to welcome back the sailors after they clinched the Auld Mug for the first time since 2000.

The one-sided triumph against Oracle Team USA in Bermuda in June was even more satisfying because it banished the memories of New Zealand's agonizing 9-8 defeat by the Americans four years earlier.

For Joe Sullivan and Simon van Velthooven, an Olympic rower and cyclist respectively before being recruited as "cyclors" to power the Kiwis' revolutionary leg-powered winch grinders, the whole America's Cup experience has been a whirlwind.

But as the dust settles a few months on, how do you follow the America's Cup?

Sullivan took six weeks off to travel and then returned to his day job as a fireman: "On my first week back we had a pretty substantial hotel fire in Auckland. We got everyone out safely but that was quite a change of lifestyle from New Zealand."

Living a five-year-old's dream

Sullivan, who won Olympic gold in rowing in 2012 before switching to the America's Cup, told CNN Sport: "My life's been in three completely different parts. It's like I've ticked off the dream jobs of a five-year-old in New Zealand: Olympics, America's Cup and a fireman."

So what's next? "Well, the way the technology's going, maybe an astronaut in 20 years time!"

For van Velthooven, a track cycling bronze medalist at the 2012 Olympics, the return to dry land has been more about unfinished business.

At 28, he has no plans to return to cycling as a profession and is aiming to finish a university degree in rural valuation (loosely farming).

"I've been a long-time university student," he explains. "I'd 90% finished my degree seven years ago, so I'm focusing on that."

The pair have been part of the America's Cup tour which has taken the trophy around both the North and South Island of New Zealand.

In Sullivan's home town of Picton, where the population numbers 3,500, about 5,000 people turned out to get a glimpse of the Auld Mug and the sailors that brought it home.

In the capital Auckland, the crowd was huge.

"I think they were expecting in the region of 40,000 but I'm told it was 90,000," he says. "Being a small island that's surrounded by water, people have a pretty strong affinity with the water."

For van Velthooven, the America's Cup had always been a huge part of his life growing up, so he understood the outpouring of emotion.

"There's a lot of history of the Cup," he adds. "It's pretty much as old as the country.

"When people see the Cup, they just grin a lot. It's been great putting smiles on people's faces who see us competing versus bigger nations with far bigger populations and beating them. There's a lot of pride and it makes the people of New Zealand pretty happy.