By Vanessa Bidois
CAMBRIDGE - World-class rowing sensation Sonia Waddell should have been ecstatic after qualifying last month for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Instead, the 26-year-old science graduate from Cambridge suffered a bout of the guilts after her kitten was mauled by a dog.
Waddell, who came a career-best fifth in the women's single sculls at the world championships in Canada, is renowned for her love of animals.
Her post-Olympic dream is to become a veterinarian, but in the meantime she is practising on her recuperating cat.
"He got attacked by a dog the day after I got home, after I'd been away for three months, which is really sad ... When I'm not training, I'm nursing him - playing vet!"
Now regarded as New Zealand's queen and king of rowing, Sonia and husband Rob, two-time world champion single sculler, are already building up to next year's Olympics.
They will still base themselves in the Waikato but plan to continue competing in Europe and will attend a pre-Olympic training camp in Australia.
Sonia Waddell is excited by the challenge and feels lucky to have a partner in the same boat.
"We're each other's number one supporter," she says.
"Like most other sports in New Zealand, we have to travel to Europe to get our competition and our tour this year was just over three months.
"If you have to spend that time away from each other, that's a really big issue. But basically we're together all the time, which is really good for us."
Born in Taranaki, Waddell moved to the Waikato when she was four with parents Alistair, a former All Black, and Yvonne Scown.
A keen sportswoman at Hamilton's Hillcrest High School, she excelled at athletics and represented New Zealand in the 400m hurdles at the 1990 Junior World Games.
She finished her seventh form year in Switzerland before taking up a five-year athletic scholarship at an American university, but lasted only a year because of injury.
Back home, she took up rowing, and after only three weeks was selected for the New Zealand under-23 squad - "I suppose they thought I had potential, because I certainly couldn't row at that stage."
A year later she was picked for the national elite team.
The blond missile credits the people of Cambridge for her present success, pointing to a huge fundraising effort by locals when she first made the elite squad.
"The money they raised allowed me to get to the world champs, train fulltime for the next year, and then go on further.
"I got the break that a lot of other athletes struggle to get, and that was simply because of the support the town gave me."
Since making the world's top 10 female rowers, Waddell has received a grant from the Sports Foundation. She jokes that it also helps to have a joint account with her husband.
She triumphed over exerciseinduced asthma as a teenager and later an illness which meant she was unable to naturally purge her body of iron.
Her training regime usually begins with an intensive session on the water - often up to 21/2 hours.
Four times a week, she works on weights at her Cambridge gym and in the evenings is back in the boat or cross-training for another hour.
"The main thing is eating enough."
Waddell says she does not think of herself as a role model until she reads the faxes and e-mails from young women, or visits schools on public speaking engagements.
"I would like to make them proud of me, and not only do well in my sport but also show them that it's really important to have a balance in life.
"I think it's very easy for kids to be led down the wrong path. That's where sports is such a powerful tool to keep them on track."