The small Waikato town of Cambridge welcomed home its champion Olympians today in a colourful event where hundreds of children got up close to the athletes and their medals.

More than 25 Olympians, coaches and support crew signed autographs, posed for photographs and played tug-of-war with a 1300-strong crowd of fans who gathered in windy and cold weather to greet the team on Victoria Square.

Sam Webster chats with fans at the Cambridge welcome home for Rio Olympians. Photo / Natalie Akoorie.
Sam Webster chats with fans at the Cambridge welcome home for Rio Olympians. Photo / Natalie Akoorie.

The rowing and cycling athletes are all based in the Waipa district, aptly sloganed "Home of Champions", for its training facilities including the Avantidrome cycling velodrome and Lake Karapiro with its Mighty River Domain and Rowing NZ base.

Medallists at the event included rowing men's single sculls winner Mahe Drysdale, women's coxless pair silver medallists Rebecca Scown and Genevieve Behrent and cycling men's team sprint silver medallists Eddie Dawkins, Sam Webster and Ethan Mitchell.

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Silver medal cyclist Ethan Mitchell signs the t-shirt of a fan. Photo / Natalie Akoorie.
Silver medal cyclist Ethan Mitchell signs the t-shirt of a fan. Photo / Natalie Akoorie.

Waipa mayor Jim Mylchreest said residents were lucky because they regularly see the world-class athletes cycling on local roads, training at Lake Karapiro or just getting their groceries at the supermarket.

"They are our local icons, our heroes and our champions but they are also just like us when they drop the kids at school, do the grocery shopping or pick up the milk from the dairy on the way home.

"We all take incredible pride in your presence amongst us."

Mylchreest said qualifying alone for the Olympics was a feat in itself.

"The tough training, the strict diets, the mental fortitude and the sheer determination to do it better each time is amazing to most of us.

"We sit back behind our TV screen and wonder how you compose your nerves, contain your excitement and deal with the setbacks you must all have at some stage.

"We also know that your determination and years of hard work inspire other generations of champions."

Mylchreest told Drysdale his photo finish gold medal win had Kiwis on the edge of their seats.

"Mahe, I think I can safely say all of Waipa were holding their breath as you crossed the finish line."

Silver medallist Eddie Dawkins lends his support to the tug-of-war at the welcome home event for Cambridge's Rio Olympians. Photo / Natalie Akoorie.
Silver medallist Eddie Dawkins lends his support to the tug-of-war at the welcome home event for Cambridge's Rio Olympians. Photo / Natalie Akoorie.

Aidan Rawlinson of Hamilton brought his two grandsons, aged nine and four, to meet the Olympians.

"Just to support Mahe and all the other Olympic athletes because they have done a great thing for this area and for New Zealand.

"It's not often you get to meet them face to face."

Children had t-shirts signed and wore medals as they posed in photographs with their heroes.

During a question and answer session with the crowd Webster joked he first realised he had made a career out of cycling "last week", after he won silver.

Scown said she had craved fruit and vegetables during her stay in Rio and Behrent said she was most looking forward to catching up with family and friends, including younger brother Ollie Behrent who surprised her by turning up to the event with Kristi Rabbitt, both wearing masks made from a picture of his sister's face.

Ollie Behrent and Kristi Rabbitt surprised his older sister silver medallist Genevieve Behrent by flying up to the Cambridge welcome home from Queenstown. Photo / Natalie Akoorie.
Ollie Behrent and Kristi Rabbitt surprised his older sister silver medallist Genevieve Behrent by flying up to the Cambridge welcome home from Queenstown. Photo / Natalie Akoorie.

Drysdale said he first felt inspired to become an Olympian when he saw Rob Waddell win gold in the men's single sculls in Sydney in 2000 but it wasn't until he was at university that he took up rowing.

Gold medallist rowers Hamish Bond and Eric Murray were absent from the event due to other commitments.