SAN FRANCISCO — The big black cat almost used up its last life at the start, burying its bow in a wave and falling behind a boatload of Kiwis.
Of course, it was only fitting in this America's Cup that Oracle Team USA would need to survive near-defeat again.
With one last spectacular push in a winner-take-all finale Wednesday, the United States managed to hang on to the Auld Mug in closing out the longest, fastest and, by far, wildest America's Cup ever with one of the greatest comebacks in sports.
Skipper Jimmy Spithill steered Oracle's space-age, 72-foot catamaran to its eighth-straight victory, speeding past Dean Barker and Team New Zealand in Race 19 on a San Francisco Bay course bordered by the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Embarcadero.
This was the first time the America's Cup was raced inshore. The catamarans were the vision of software billionaire Larry Ellison and his sailing team chief executive officer, Russell Coutts, who is now a five-time America's Cup winner.
Powered by a 131-foot wing sail, the catamarans have hit 50 mph, faster than the speed limit on the Golden Gate Bridge.
All but defeated a week ago, Spithill, a 34-year-old Australian, and his international crew twice rallied from seven-point deficits to win 9-8. Owned by Ellison, Oracle Team USA was docked two points for illegally modifying boats in warm-up regattas and had to win 11 races to keep the trophy. Oracle won by 44 seconds.
"It really is about the team, man," Spithill said. "On your own, you're nothing, but when you've got a team like this around you, they can make you look great. They did all of that today and the whole series. I'm so proud of the boys. They didn't flinch."
How big was this win?
For sailing, it was the equivalent of the Boston Red Sox sweeping the final four games of the 2004 ALCS over the New York Yankees, the only comeback from a 3-0 deficit in major league history. It's also comparable to the Philadelphia Flyers overcoming a 0-3 deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in the 2010 NHL playoffs.
As stirring of a comeback as it was for Spithill and his crew, it was a staggering loss for Team New Zealand. Barker, 41, was looking for redemption after losing the America's Cup to Alinghi of Switzerland in 2003 and then steering the losing boat in 2007, also against Alinghi.
"For me, my job is to support the guys because they're pretty smashed," said Grant Dalton, who is the managing director of Team New Zealand and also is one of the grinders on the boat. "They're feeling it pretty bad. The country is really devastated."
Team New Zealand was funded in part by its government and its future is uncertain.
An online poll conducted by the New Zealand Herald newspaper while New Zealand still led Oracle in the finals series showed that 36 percent of respondents believed the government should make another major contribution to Team New Zealand, and a further 22 percent said the contribution should be increased.
But when the teams were locked together at 8-8 before Wednesday's race, 55 percent of respondents opposed further government funding and only 32 percent supported continued taxpayer assistance.
Barker was gracious in defeat.
"To Oracle, amazing. We thought a couple of weeks ago that it was sort of in our favor, and the way they improved and turned things around is just incredible. It was unbelievable," he said.