America's Cup: How life has changed for New Zealand's winning sailors

Story highlights

  • Simon van Velthooven and Joe Sullivan were cyclists with Emirates Team New Zealand
  • Both have been blown away by the America's Cup celebrations
  • One is now a firefighter, the other finishing his university degree

(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!"
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    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."
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    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 Auckland, meanwhile, 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.
    "And on the tour, it's been funny hearing people's stories about the Cup, getting up at 4 a.m. to watch the races and screaming at the screen early in the morning."

    An America's Cup future?

    Both laugh at the suggestion that their America's Cup success has turned them into superstars back at home.
    Only once has Sullivan, who took a year off from his job in the fire service, been recognized on active duty -- and that was by one of the Team New Zealand design team while he was attending an incident near their Auckland base.
    "There's no tall poppies in New Zealand, people are all pretty humble," says van Velthooven.
    Whether either of them have an America's Cup future remains to be seen.
    The next America's Cup, to be raced in 2021, will feature high-performance monohulls instead of the twin-hulled flying machines of Bermuda earlier this year.
    Whether Team New Zealand will retain the cycling pedestals to turn the winches, instead of reverting to traditional arm power, remains to be seen.
    Both Sullivan and van Velthooven are keeping up their fitness, with one eye on building up their arm strength. In addition, both are committed to sailing more.
    "I'd like to think that after sweating blood in Bermuda I'd be on the list to be considered," said van Velthooven. "I've still got a big motor and my heart still knows how to pump.
    "The next boat will be mega, it's America's Cup so it'll be high-end performance, and they'll still need the horsepower. Plus, I feel I learned a lot just listening into the comms through the Cup in Bermuda."
    Sullivan says: "I haven't got a clue about my America's Cup future but I'm still fully committed to it. We're not in the loop on the design process so I just have to remain fit and ready."
    For now, the pair are relishing life on dry land, and some of the parties that have followed what proved to be a comfortable Cup win.
    But, as van Velthooven puts it: "Life goes on. Admittedly there's a few more yarns but life still goes on."