Mahaney relies on appliance of science

AMERICA'S CUP: The Young America skipper with an analytical approach to sailing talks to Stuart Alexander
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The Independent Online
In a town full of larger-than-life braggadocio and swagger, Kevin Mahaney cuts a quiet figure on the America's Cup docksides, melting into team photographs and smiling tentatively, but his eyes are always intense.

As the skipper of the Pact '95 syndicate's Young America, the 33-year old Mahaney is the man most likely to lead the US defence of the America's Cup, a remarkable achievement for someone who did not take up sailing seriously until he was 20.

Even when invited, he can hardly bring himself to say he likes sailing, always preferring to talk of the game as a task to be completed, a formula, rather than a skill to be learned.

His background is both East Coast patrician and quietly rural. His father, Larry, is the president of Webber Oil, a fuel company which has close trading links with Exxon.

Larry has the baseball stadium at the University of Maine named after him - Mahaney Field - and also played basketball well. Kevin went to Middlebury College in Vermont to study economics and physics, before going to the graduate scho-ol of business at Chicago University. That he does not even mention.

Middlebury is described by a fellow student as a town of three traffic- lights and a soda fountain, with more cows than people. But it also has a high achievement, well-funded, highly respected private college, which better suited Mahaney's studious nature than a metropolitan university. "He can hold his own at a cocktail party, but would probably prefer not to go," was the assessment of him.

And it is only after prompting that Mahaney confirms his first love was downhill skiing, at which he was good enough to make the US team, and at college his game was lacrosse, where he played goalkeeper.

So was that a raw-boned confrontational affair? No, says Kevin. He preferred to organise the whole defence, study the lines of attack, place the defenders cleverly and so deny the opposition a shot. That way he did not have to be a good goalkeeper.

The reserved exterior hides a man who loves to joke, is a movie buff, and fond of quoting lines from Country and Western songs, says a close colleague. But, yes, he is pretty intense. What is nervously glossed over is that his need for unhindered concentration on a complex game at the highest level is not being helped by the prospect of divorce, and the break-up of a family with three children.

He has also had to cope with the removal of a cancerous tumour from his neck. But despite some signs of a nervous disposition, Mahaney certainly has drive, and to have won an Oly-mpic silver medal in Barcelona after just 10 years in the game - pushing Britain's Lawrie Smith into bronze in the process -is a measure of the way in which he can apply himself.

On a boat surrounded by top talent such as John Kostecki, Kenny Read and Andreas Josenhans, he says: "There is no such thing as a natural. I'm definitely an analytical guy." He even worked at juggling in order to improve his peripheral vision. Says he learns everything from others. Wants to run things like a quarterback in American football.

Analysis and aggression, he says, go hand in hand, whether the players be in sport or science. Preparation is everything, especially in the America's Cup, and he rejects the notion that such an ordered machine can be knocked off course by the small matter of losing a couple of races.

Even if they lose, he feels they know exactly why, and he has the confidence in his tools, the boat, sails, and his crew - including the managers and strategists ashore - but then he also had a powerful machine, including Ed Baird as a personal coach, going into the Olympics, and was beaten by Jesper Bank of Denmark.

But that has all now been rationalised, and he counters that he had the best programme. But he does not see himself as a national sporting figure, does not want to be Mr America's Cup, and has not thought about making a career out of it.

It is the business-school ethos that is always close to the surface, rather than the games player. He wants his machine to perform to plan, not to hammer the opposition. Mr Mahaney is a rather clinical yachtsman.