A champion of one of the world’s most famous sporting events let a sheepish grin cross his face as he gave out thank-yous at his alma mater Saturday afternoon.
“I have to thank my advisers,” Rome Kirby said to a crowd of teachers, students and alumni. “Without them, I wouldn’t have graduated high school. I definitely played a lot of hooky to go sailing.”
School officials weren’t laughing back in those days, but they could chuckle Saturday – never has a little bit of hooky seemed so fitting.
Kirby, a Newport native, was the lone American member of Oracle Team USA, which completed one of the most improbable comebacks in sailing and sports history when it won the America’s Cup last month.
The 23-year-old is back in Rhode Island now, and he stopped in at Rocky Hill School on Saturday for homecoming festivities. Kirby graduated from Rocky Hill in 2007.
Kirby signed autographs, posed for photos and was presented with a brick commemorating the championship that will be placed in the school’s Garden Brickwalk.
It was a hero’s welcome.
“It’s been overwhelming, especially coming home and seeing all the support,” Kirby said. “It’s been unbelievable. It’s been great.”
Winning sailing’s greatest prize has long been a dream for Kirby. He grew up in Newport, surrounded by America’s Cup history, and he watched his father, Jerry, sail in six cups. Jerry was on the crew that won in 1992.
“It’s been since I was little,” Rome Kirby said. “When I saw my dad win the America’s Cup, it was definitely something I wanted to do.”
Kirby started down that path at an early age, racing dinghies on Narragansett Bay and ultimately at the national level. He was on the water as much as possible, always sailing with his eye on his career’s horizon.
“That’s where it all comes from,” he said.
At Rocky Hill, Kirby’s senior internship propelled him further. He worked with Puma Ocean Racing, learning the science behind high-level, competitive sailing.
Illustrating Kirby’s passion, Rocky Hill Head of School Peter Branch relayed comments from Ms. Corinne Dedinin, a former teacher at Rocky Hill who was Kirby’s adviser: “When I met Rome 10 years ago, his dream was to become a world-class sailor; even in high school, just about every choice he made inched him closer to that reality.”
The reality took hold last year, when Kirby joined the same Puma team for the eight-month, around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race. He completed it in July and was bound for the America’s Cup soon after. He would be the youngest sailor – and the only American – on the Oracle Team USA crew and its giant, futuristic catamaran.
He had no idea what was ahead of him.
“The last few months leading up to the Cup – it was long,” Kirby said. “Our team went through some serious ups and downs. We were definitely back against the wall before the event even started – getting penalized and losing a wing trimmer, just all the stuff that was going on.”
Then came the races, where Oracle fell behind 8-1. That was match point for the opposition, but the Oracle team won nine consecutive races – all with no margin for error – to hoist the cup.
“People keep asking me what we changed,” Kirby said. “We changed a few little things with our wing, but nothing substantial. It was just pure hard work. On our days off during the event, we went out and we trained. It worked. We dug ourselves out of a massive hole.”
It’s been a three-weeks-long celebration since the final race, and the enormity of the feat – some are calling it the greatest comeback in sports history – is only now sinking in.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Kirby said. “It’s slowly starting to sink in. It’s pretty unbelievable. I talked to one of my teammates last night. He’s back in Australia, and we were just laughing and saying, ‘Can you believe it?’”
Kirby’s visit to Rocky Hill helped cement it. On the shores of Narragansett Bay, memories rushed back and brought perspective with them.
“It’s unbelievable,” Kirby said. “I never thought I’d actually get a brick here.”
The school might need more bricks before all is said and done. Kirby is already talking about what’s next – another America’s Cup and possibly a trip to the Olympics.
The kid who played hooky to go sailing still has big plans.
“I’m just looking forward to getting back at it,” he said.