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Superior skills sail Kiwis ahead of the big guys

Ticker-tape parades and street celebrations mark New Zealand's successful defense of the yachting world's most vaunted prize.

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Since Team New Zealand successfully defended the oldest continuously contested trophy in sports Thursday, their 3.8 million countrymen and women have been proudly celebrating the America's Cup win as a national achievement.

"The place has gone nuts," says John Davies, a local sports promoter and athletics coach.

Much of this week has been turned over to triumphant street celebrations and ticker-tape parades. In Auckland, the largest city, an estimated quarter million fans turned out Saturday to shower ticker tape on their country's sporting heroes. A similar outpouring is scheduled here today in the capital, Wellington, following a parliamentary reception for the victors hosted by Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Ms. Clark has made much of what she sees as the nationalistic dimension of the win. In addition to New Zealand whitewashing its international competition on the waves, Clark says, the victory demonstrates a "remarkable" ability to meet head-on the technological challenge of larger nations such as the US, Japan, France, and Italy.

When the black-hulled Team New Zealand boat clinched a 5-0 knockout of Italian challenger Luna Rossa, it generated the feeling of a near rerun of their initial America's Cup victory in San Diego five years ago. Kiwi sailors trounced the rival Stars and Stripes syndicate by a historically wide margin.

Technical superiority of the craft as well as the team's tactical skills were again credited for the win.

Unlike the US, yachting Down Under has not until recently figured as a pursuit exclusively enjoyed by the members of wealthy racing syndicates.

Team New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts is a case in point: The youngest son of a working-class suburban family, his earliest years in the water were in a humble P-class dinghy built for him by his father, a building supervisor.

In season and out, some 32,000 registered members from 124 yachting clubs, along with unknown numbers of unregistered users, take to the same choppy waters for pleasure, adventure, and what is, by local mythology, something akin to a rite of cultural passage.

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