Q&A: ORACLE TEAM USA’S Kyle Langford

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In person, Kyle Langford is gracious, grounded, and genuinely laidback, but there’s no missing the 24-year-old’s laser focus. These traits seem to have served him well: well-respected among veteran teammates, Langford is the youngest sailor among this year’s America’s Cup teams.

ORACLE TEAM USA made global headlines when, during a training session in October, they capsized their custom 72-foot racing catamaran on San Francisco Bay, and Langford found himself dangling 60 feet in the air–earning the nickname “Spiderman.” With this now-legendary sailing survival story under his belt, Langford is looking forward to the forthcoming competitions in September. Here, he talks with One Medical Group about the mental side of competition, being a good teammate, sailing with MC Hammer–and finding opportunity in the boxing ring.

What would you do if you weren’t a sailor?

I never thought that I wouldn’t be a sailor. During high school, I sailed full-time. I didn’t have a back-up plan. It just wasn’t a question I ever asked myself.

How do you prepare for a race? Are you superstitious?

I’m not superstitious. I try to do as much as I can beforehand, so once I get to the race there are no boxes I haven’t ticked and I’m not going to come up against anything I don’t expect.

How much of sailing do you think is mental?

A lot! Especially the America’s Cup format–match racing, where you’re only racing one opponent. There are three years leading up to it, so you’re always looking at your opposition and they’re always looking at you, and you know a lot about each other. And there’s a lot of media around both teams. When you get to the race, you have to shut all that out.

The design [of the boat] is important, but if you think your boat’s a little bit slow–then that’s a mental thing that you need to overcome. I’d say 80 percent of sailing a boat in a race is a mental game.

Do you pay attention to the media?

I take it all with a pinch of salt. I look at it, but it doesn’t get to me.

What kind of media do you follow?

I read various sailing websites, like Sailing World and Sailing Anarchy.

What’s it like being the youngest member of the team?

There’s a group of us known as “the young guys”– but it’s not like I’m singled out for being the youngest. On the shore, if there’s a job that nobody wants to do, it’s always like, “OK, send one of the young guys to do it,” which is fair enough! But as soon as we get on the water, there’s no hierarchy. Everybody’s respected for the job they’re doing on board. Everybody’s view is equal and respected on the water.

What’s your advice for being a good teammate?

It’s important to listen to other people and respect their points of view regardless of their age or position on the team. And if you disagree with someone, you should still be able to see it from his perspective without thinking, I’m right, this guy’s wrong.

We analyze everything we do on the boat and on the water to ensure we’re doing it as efficiently as possible–every maneuver, every tack, every movement. And when you’ve got 11 guys on board, you’ve got 11 opinions on how we should be doing things. So being really open and listening, and being willing to try new things, which may not be your idea or your perfect way of doing something–those things make a really good teammate.

What would winning the America’s Cup mean to you?

I don’t have any expectations of what it would be like to win. Right now, we just spend so much time focusing on how to do everything better so when it comes to game day, we can win.

Do you have any sports idols?

I read Andre Agassi’s book a few years ago and thought it was really cool.

What was it that resonated with you?

The idea that if you’re going to do something, you need to do it properly. Growing up, people were always saying to me, “If sailing doesn’t work out, you need a fallback.” And I thought, if I put 80 percent into sailing and 20 percent into a fallback, that reduces my chances of making it in sailing by 20 percent. You need to put 100 percent into one thing in order to make it. And if you do that and it doesn’t work out, then it’s probably not meant to be. In his book, Agassi had the same philosophy.

What’s the most bizarre injury you’ve ever gotten playing a sport?

We were sailing in China and we capsized our boat. It was a 40-foot catamaran, similar to the boats we sail now, but smaller. When it capsized, I fell about 8 meters, hit the mast with my backside, and I couldn’t walk for 3 or 4 weeks!

Speaking of capsizing, I hear they call you “Spiderman”…

Yeah…

How far did you fall during the capsize in October?

I think it was probably 60 feet or so.

Did it hurt?

No, thankfully not. When I was hanging on to the net–well, some people debate this–but the reason why I held on so long was because when I was looking down, there was a lot of carbon fiber, and I knew if I fell on it I could be seriously injured.

The other theory is that I’m scared of heights.

Are you?

I’m not that comfortable with heights. We did some safety training recently, and when we got to the 10-meter diving platform to jump off, I hesitated, so everyone was giving me a hard time. It’s mostly that I don’t like the sensation of falling.

Were you scared when the capsize happened?

Yeah, really scared. When you’re hanging up there, you know the boat could roll over at any second, because you can hear carbon fiber breaking, so you know that if something happens it could go seriously bad. We’re very, very fortunate that nobody was injured.

How do you get over something like that, and get back on the boat?

The next day we had to sail on the 45s, which is the smaller version of the boat. I just sat there all day, I wasn’t trimming. It was pretty uncomfortable.

When we started sailing the AC72 again, whenever we had a moment that was a bit dodgy, I could feel myself getting nervous. When we sail, we really sail–over 40 knots–and if something goes wrong at that speed, it could go really badly.

But ultimately, you have to have confidence in the guys around you, and in the boat, and in the design, and be confident that if something like that does happen, you’ll be able to recover from it quickly. We’ve done a lot of safety training so we know how to react in a situation like that if it occurs again.

Did the capsize change your approach to sailing?

I’m more aware now. Before, I thought, “Maybe these boats will capsize, maybe they won’t,” and people talked about it, we talked about it, but deep down, I never really thought it would happen, so it was a wake-up call to understand how dangerous these things can be.

I saw that you took MC Hammer out sailing! What was that like?

Yeah, it was cool to see how much he enjoyed it. Guys like that who have all the toys in the world that they can play with, and they think sailing is really cool–it makes me appreciate that what we’re doing is pretty special. He said he’d swap his Lamborghini for the boat!

What’s on your playlist?

I really like M83 and Cold War Kids.

What makes you happy?

Good friends. I like being outdoors. Whenever we have a free weekend, I go up to Tahoe to go skiing, or Santa Cruz to go kite surfing.

How do you deal with stress?

There’s always a reason behind stress, and stress affects productivity, whether it’s to do with sailing, or work, or anything. So I try to identify the problem, solve it, and move on.

What are a couple of your favorite San Francisco restaurants?

Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day–I like Fourbarrel on Valencia, and Blue Fig makes good coffee.

Who are your favorite people?

My parents are really supportive, and they always have good advice.

I heard that you broke Kinley Fowler’s rib in the boxing ring!

Technically–he claims that I didn’t! His rib was cracked and he told me that he had a sore rib and not to punch him there. And I told him that if he steps into the ring, it’s at his own risk and sure enough, he let his guard down and I saw an opportunity to get in there, and I–unintentionally–hit his sore spot. That’s the story.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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