20 NZ Olympic Moments: No. 17, Waddell overcomes heart ailment for gold

By David Leggat

Herald sports writers Dylan Cleaver and David Leggat will count down 20 Great New Zealand Olympic Moments.

Today, we take a look at the man who propelled New Zealand rowing back to the top.

The Sydney Olympics of 2000 were not a stellar event for New Zealand.

One gold, no silver and three bronze represented a desperately meagre return.

However, the one gold was a first.

New Zealand's only single scull medallists had been Darcy Hadfield back at Antwerp in 1912, and Eric Verdonk at Seoul in 1988, both of whom won bronze medals.

When Rob Waddell turned up at the purpose-built venue at Penrith, he was regarded as a strong chance.

After all, he'd won the previous two world titles in the single seat, after getting seventh at the Atlanta Games four years earlier. He was 25 in Sydney and in his prime. Swiss Xeno Mueller was defending the crown he won at Atlanta. There were other tough competitors in the field.

There was also a back story. Waddell had suffered the heart condition atrium fibrillation while in a coxless four at the 1995 world championships. So he moved out of team events and focused on the single scull. With anti-arrhythmic medication things improved.

The two world titles were won, but there was a hiccup during the World Cup season immediately preceding Sydney, when Mueller beat him in Vienna.

At the Games, Waddell clocked the fastest heat and semifinal times. In the final, he and Mueller pulled away from the field by halfway and after duelling up to the 1500m mark, Waddell pulled away to win by eight metres.

He recorded 6m 48.90s, to Mueller's 6m 50.55s with German Marcel Hacker - who'll be in the field for the London Games - third a further .28s back.

Waddell, who had been a useful rugby player, representing Waikato at lock, then turned his hand to the America's Cup where he was a grinder.

But he set out to win back his spot in early 2008 for the Beijing Olympics. In domestic competition that summer, he won three of four races against Mahe Drysdale, who had won the previous three world titles. So the pair were ordered to take part in a best-of-three series at Lake Karapiro.

Rowing New Zealand foolishly ruled the series off limits to the public, before reversing their decision.

Waddell won the first race, Drysdale the second and interest was intense for the decider.

However Waddell eased up after about 300m feeling a return of the old heart ailment.

"There's just nothing you can do. The simple feeling is it's like rowing in mud," Waddell said at the time.

He went to Beijing anyway, finishing a disappointing fourth with Nathan Cohen in the double scull.

But it was a cruel end to a fine career, which undoubtedly helped push New Zealand to the top of the rowing world, a position it still occupies going into the London Games.

- NZ Herald

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