John Bertrand takes his winning formula from the sea to the pool
Man who broke sport's longest winning streak now aims to revitalise Australian swimming
John Bertrand begins with the apocryphal story of Queen Victoria watching the 100 Guinea Cup around the Isle of Wight in 1851, a battle between one American sloop and a fleet of British boats. Told that the "upstart" Americans were winning, she asked who was second.
The full house at the Australia Day luncheon organised by the Australian Chamber of Commerce bursts out in laughter as the man who broke sport's longest winning streak - 132 years - and took the America's Cup from the United States home to Australia reveals the answer: "Ah, your majesty, there is no second".
"The 100 Guinea Cup was renamed by the Americans as the America's Cup and it remained in their hands for 132 years until Australia II won it," recounts Bertrand, who skippered the boat to that famous victory off Rhode Island in 1983.
"And I feel very proud and have a sense of responsibility because it is an important part of our country's sporting history," adds Bertrand when asked how he feels today, 31 years later, to be known as the man who broke that American dominance.
It was by coming second that the fire in Bertrand's and Australia's belly was tempered - he tried to win on a number of occasions before striking gold in 1983.
The audience is treated to delectable insights into how the campaign was won. How Alan Bond, a businessman up to his neck in debts, convinced his creditors to bankroll his venture (when one investor reluctantly sent him a cheque for A$25,000, Bond wrote him a letter thanking him for "the deposit"), or how the famed winged keel came to be (designer Ben Lexcen who had no formal degree from any reputed university got the idea watching gulls land and take off).
Bertrand is a raconteur who keeps his audience spellbound. And there is a prickly feeling of goosebumps as a flashback of that famous victory is shown to the crowd. Again there are stories behind the scenes. Why the famous boxing kangaroo - now the official flag of the Australian Olympic team - and the Men At Work anthem Down Under was used ("we wanted to create our own battle flag and hymn").
At 67, Bertrand says he has semi-retired from the business world. But he has plenty left on his plate having recently taken over the presidency of Swimming Australia. Another anecdote: "I told my wife Rasa that Swimming Australia had approached me asking if I would take on the role of president and I said this was a matter of national importance - and she bought it."
Australia's dismal performance at the London Olympics in 2012 was a national shame says Bertrand. "There are two sports in Australia fundamental to our DNA, cricket and swimming. When we are down in either, it is not good for the country."
Dapper as ever, Bertrand is confident that by the time the Rio Olympics comes around, Australia's fortunes in swimming will follow that of its cricket team. "We are talking about taking on the best of the world, the Americans, China … it is hot in the kitchen, but we've got some very good young talent and we are getting the alignment right, where one plus one equals three. When that starts to happen, people begin to leverage off each other and we get amazing results."
And he should know: he says it was the same formula that turned him into a household name in 1983.