1992 America’s Cup Champion Bill Koch meets Tulane’s sailing team
NEW ORLEANS – Winner of the 1992 America’s Cup, Bill Koch spoke to the Tulane sailing team on Tuesday at the Southern Yacht Club to share stories and lessons from his past that he learned both on and off the water.
Earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Koch said there were really only two things he learned in his 13 years at the school.
“The first is to be able to separate perception from reality to find out what reality really is,” Koch said. “The next thing I learned was about teamwork.”
As a member of the MIT basketball team, Koch won only one game during his freshman year. When Jack Barry was hired as the new head coach the following season, the team eventually put together the longest winning streak in the nation by the time Koch’s senior year rolled around.
“What was fascinating about it was that most of us could not have made any other team in the country, we couldn’t even make an intramural team,” Koch said. “The secret to how he did it was very important. He gave us only one play and drilled us over and over and over so we could do it in our sleep. It worked magic. And then he said one other thing, ‘You guys aren’t nerds, you guys aren’t losers, you win in your head.’ It was remarkable.”
A few decades later, when Koch decided to compete for the America’s Cup, he applied that same winning strategy.
After recruiting over 500 sailors, and narrowing the pool down to 35, Koch chose his team based on three qualities: attitude, teamwork and sailing ability.
“Incidentally, we had three of the very best sailors in the world and we ended up cutting them from the team to take two guys who had never sailed before,” Koch said. “It’s far easier to train someone who has a good attitude and good teamwork to be a good sailor than it is to take a superstar and train him to be a good team player.”
But Koch had to do more than just recruit the right team in order to win. After studying everything pertaining to sailing and to the America’s Cup, Koch decided upon three principles that would lead him to success.
“First, slow boats don’t win the America’s Cup. Fast boats do,” he said. “The second thing is, the team that wins is the one that makes the fewest mistakes. The third thing is, you have to do everything extremely well: the clothes, the deck, preparing the boats at night. Put in a lot of effort. And focus on only one thing – winning the Cup.”
Three years after defeating four-time Cup winner Dennis Conner in his first attempt, Koch sponsored an all-women’s team to recognize and celebrate the skill of women’s sailors.
“That was the only all-women’s team that has ever been put together,” Tulane Director of Athletics Troy Dannen said. “There is nobody in this country, in the history of sailing in this country, that has done more to empower women sailors than [Koch].”
Tulane sailing head coach Charles Higgins also acknowledged the work that Koch has done to empower women, stressing how important that is to him as the leader of a coed program.
“The dynamic of being able to work together and have the women of the sport feel empowered is something that Mr. Koch has done an outstanding job of in his time and I think that really holds a special place in our team when they hear that,” Higgins said. “Certainly this year especially, some of our best performances have come from our women, and for them to hear from 20 plus years ago of how important it was then and how it carries forward to now, I think its a really incredible thing.”
Having just started sailing at the age of 18, freshman crew Isabella Bentz appreciated the lessons that Koch was able to learn and share after beginning the sport in his 40s.
“The fact that he really opened doors for so many women in sailing is especially inspiring for me because I’m a woman in sailing, and a new one too,” Bentz said. “Something that really stood out to me was that he had his team practice all of their mistakes so that they would be prepared for the future. They say practice makes perfect, but it’s interesting how practicing the mistakes makes you perfect in that you can deal with the mistakes, so they don’t end up being mistakes.”
“The young sailors here – whether they knew it or not – a lot of the motivation, drive, determination, passion, commitment and support for sailing that they probably got from their parents and relatives, came from [Koch] and what he did. It’s a great honor to have had him here,” Dannen said.
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