Conner, Crew On to New York : The Skipper Wins Kudos From the Gipper

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan welcomed back Dennis Conner and the America's Cup on Monday in a White House ceremony that touched upon the themes of American competitiveness, sacrifice and the poetry of sailing.

"I've got to think it says something about the competitiveness of American technology that this time around the United States had perhaps the best designed, most technologically advanced 12-meter yacht ever christened," Reagan said during the 15-minute ceremony held in the East Room. "But no matter how slick the yacht, it still comes down to what the skipper and crew do in the open ocean."

The greeting from the President and Vice President George Bush to Conner and his crew--accompanied by an entourage of family, friends and Sail America officials--was the highlight so far of a whirlwind East Coast victory tour in honor of the Stars & Stripes' triumph over Australia's Kookaburra III last week in Fremantle.

Today, Conner and the Stars & Stripes team will be feted with a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City.

While in Washington, the America's Cup victors have been in great demand, beginning with a Sunday night reception at the Naval Memorial Museum with Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) serving as host.

After the meeting with Reagan, the team was the focus of a large party sponsored by Merrill Lynch, one of Stars & Stripes' largest corporate backers, at the historic Willard Hotel. The firm announced at Monday night's party that it was adding $250,000 to what previously has been described as a seven-figure donation.

Kyle Smith, a crew member who was also part of Conner's losing team in 1983, said he and his teammates had no idea of the public reaction that awaited them in the United States.

"I didn't think it would be quite this big," he said. "I'm on a high. I don't know what I can do to get any higher."

When Conner and his crew weren't meeting with Washington politicians and being the object of victory toasts, they found time to film a Wheaties commercial. The wind-whipped chill of the Potomac River location provided a stark contrast to the warm breezes of Western Australia, where the Cup was won.

At the White House, Reagan, who called Conner "a regular American guy," said that the sacrifices made by the crew inspired the nation. Recalling how authors had described sailing in poetic terms, Reagan said: "You enabled us for a few days to become airborne, and for that we thank you."

For a brief moment, Conner and the President exchanged a bit of banter. Describing the time one of the Stars & Stripes' sails ripped during a challenge race against New Zealand, Reagan said, "All you said was, 'This is too bad.' "

As laughter erupted through the crowd, Conner leaned over and interjected, "That's not what I said."

"That's all that you said that was printable," Reagan said.

A few moments later, Conner recalled how Reagan had telephoned him after Conner lost the America's Cup to the Australians in 1983. He said that tactician Tom Whidden yelled: "Hey, the President's on the phone, he wants to tell you how you fouled up." As Reagan and the crowd chuckled, Conner added with a comedian's pause: "That's the printed version anyway," causing another loud outburst of laughter.

Conner, who presented Reagan with a plaque bearing a miniature Stars & Stripes model, said winning the Cup was a "victory for American technology . . . a victory for the American will to compete anywhere in the world . . . and be able to win."

Before the Stars & Stripes and Kookaburra III met in the America's Cup final, the President made a wager with Australian Prime Minister Robert Hawke. With Conner's win, Reagan became the recipient of a traditional Australian bush hat, which he donned briefly during the East Room ceremony.

"You know," the President said, "it's the funniest thing. I just know whenever I put that on, I'm going to find myself turning to Nancy and saying, 'G'bye, mate.' "

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