Rowing veteran heading for epic at Rio

By David Leggat

Oarsman thrilled with quality of talent coming up but won’t think about leaving the boat till long after the waves have settled in Brazil, writes David Leggat.
Mahe Drysdale. Media day at the Rowing High Performance Centre at Lake Karapiro. Photo / Christine Cornege
Mahe Drysdale. Media day at the Rowing High Performance Centre at Lake Karapiro. Photo / Christine Cornege

Five of the six gold medallists from the 2012 Olympics will be in Rio defending their titles.

Of the five - double scullers Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan, both retired, are the exceptions - mark kayaker Lisa Carrington and coxless pair Eric Murray and Hamish Bond down as the warmest of favourites; shot putter Val Adams and 470 sailors Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie as certainly part of any serious conversation about where the medals in their disciplines will go.

Which leaves Mahe Drysdale.

He's been among the titans of single sculling since he took possession of the seat in 2005. His win in London was a triumph of getting past adversity, both in the leadup and after the hurt of his Beijing Games experience in 2008, when he won a terrific bronze after battling illness both before and during the final.

Now, at 37, Drysdale remains a dominant figure in his sport. He will turn up in Rio probably level pegging in the favouritism stakes with his great rival Ondrej Synek of the Czech Republic.

There are younger scullers coming through but Drysdale is adamant: the key showdown in Rio will be between the 33-year-old Czech and himself.

The last nine world championships, dating back to 2005 have been shared between them. No one else has had a look in.

Drysdale's won five titles; Synek four. Synek has won silver at the last two Games. There's little to split them. They have had a hegemony over the discipline which no one has been able to break.

Funny how fate can play a part in sporting careers.

Drysdale got a start in rowing during his university days when some friends cajoled him into helping form a crew for an Easter tournament. The idea of going to an Easter university event appealed.

"I was a complete novice," he said.

"I'd always dreamt as a young kid of one day going to the Olympics. But it never got to the point where I thought I'm really good enough at any sport.

"Rowing started quite slowly for me. I wouldn't say I was naturally talented in any way, but it's definitely a sport where the longer you do it, the better you get."

Drysdale took a break to concentrate on university studies, and the spur to get him back on the water came at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Rob Waddell, now chef de mission of the New Zealand team for Rio, won the single sculls crown. A good thing too, as otherwise New Zealand would have left Sydney without a single gold medal.

Drysdale was watching, and the spark caught.

"I felt if he can do it, he's a Kiwi, maybe I can too. It got me back into the sport, I did another year and got a [New Zealand] trial out of the blue.

"In a lot of ways it was timing. If I was in the same position now I wouldn't even have a shot. That's where the standards have gone. But back then there were very few people around at the time."

Drysdale was in the coxless four at Athens in 2004, alongside Donald Leach, Carl Meyer and Murray, where they finished fifth.

He moved into the single seat the following year, and won the world title. He was off and away.

The bronze at Beijing, when Drysdale, on the back of three straight world crowns, was favourite is a mix of pride at what he achieved, blended with a sense of frustration.

Hit by a gastro bug before the final - he only sneaked into the final as slowest of the six qualifiers - Drysdale actually led the field into the last 500m. Those who knew he was suffering were on their feet, willing him on.

Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates, who knew the back story, was on his feet in the stand as Drysdale passed the 1500m. "This is extraordinary! Come on, Mahe!" he yelled.

Had Drysdale hung on to win, that would have been some story.

Instead he had to be helped from his boat in a distressed state. But Drysdale knows he got his preparations wrong.

"Looking back I should have gone and had more intravenous fluids on the morning of the final.

"But I'd let things slip in the buildup. There were things I could have done better.

"Technically I wasn't at my best. I knew in some sessions I hadn't given my all. It was a rookie mistake in some ways. I'd won three years in a row [world champs] but I was preparing myself to win, rather than be the best I could possibly be.

"That was the shift between Beijing and London. It may seem a small distinction, but the difference is if you are the best you can be you may have a bit of wriggle room, and if things go wrong you can still overcome them.

"In Beijing I felt I was definitely good enough to win, but I wasn't good enough to overcome and win. That became a driving factor in the next four years."

London was different. Drysdale had two crashes on his bike in training, one six weeks out from the Games, fractured a rib and didn't train for three weeks before they began. An ideal leadup it was not.

Still, he was good enough to make up for Beijing, although Drysdale doesn't look at it as any form of redemption. He treats them separately. Still, pure relief might sum it up.

Drysdale - married to London bronze-medallist pair rower Juliette Haigh and with an 18-month-old daughter Bronte - reckons some of the pressure has gone off him, having achieved his goal four years ago. That said, in this respect he's greedy. He wants another one.

Training with Dick Tonks is just as it was before Tonks' well-publicised contretemps with Rowing New Zealand. That bust up forces Tonks to meet Drysdale and his other charges, the world champion women's double scullers Zoe Stevenson and Eve Macfarlane, out on Lake Karapiro, further down from RNZ's high performance base.

Drysdale is excited by the quality of scullers coming through and expects challenges all around, with the caveat that Synek looms largest in his sights.

At 37, this will be Drysdale's final Olympics - or will it?

When he decided to go for Rio he was "80 per cent" sure that would be the end. Now he's thinking more 50-50.

He will be 41 in Tokyo in 2020. That's a big call but he's relishing the environment, believes New Zealand have a "very special" team and his speed has been good, his results pleasing.

He won't make any decision until after Rio.

"It's something I love and I certainly won't give it away easily. In saying that, my body is telling me I can't quite push as hard as I once used to be able to.

"It's about management, so I have to take a real good hard look and make sure I'm confident of another four years if I was to continue."

Drysdale, and the women's scullers, are off to the second and third World Cups in Lucerne (May 27-29) and Poznan, Poland (June 17-19) with the Holland Beker regatta in Amsterdam sandwiched between, before completing preparations for Rio with a six-week camp in Slovenia.

At the last two world champs, Drysdale has been pipped by Synek by .730s (Amsterdam 2014) and .340s (Aiguebelette, France last year).

A battle royal looms between two magnificent oarsmen. Drysdale believes he has it in him. Sunday, August 14. Circle the date, set the alarm. It should be worth it.

- NZ Herald

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