Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

New Zealand's Greatest Olympians - Number 19: Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell won our only Olympic gold in 2000. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Rob Waddell won our only Olympic gold in 2000. Photo / Paul Estcourt

We're counting down New Zealand's 25 greatest Olympians. Today, Rob Waddell. Scroll to the bottom to find out how we came up with the list.

New Zealand has won 43 gold medals across more than a century of Olympic competition, but few have been as important as Rob Waddell's effort in Sydney 16 years ago.

Not only did his win lay the foundation for the current golden era of rowing in this country, it also staved off the unthinkable - New Zealand departing an Olympic Games without a gold medal.

A total of 151 athletes went to Sydney, our biggest team and more than 50 per cent larger than Atlanta four years earlier. But while medals rained for Australia - with a record 58 medals, including 16 golds - results didn't come for the team wearing the Silver Fern.

Beatrice Faumuina flopped in the discus final, Sarah Ulmer missed out in both her cycling events and sailing's highly rated Tornado pairing of Chris Dickson and Glen Sowry finished fifth.

Before Waddell's race on the middle Saturday, New Zealand was facing the prospect of failing to win gold at a Games for the first time in 52 years.

"It was probably fair to say I was one of the last gold medal chances at that Games, being realistic about who had already competed and what the results were," recalled Waddell.

"I know it was discussed and I do recall being asked that before I was racing. I remember feeling a fair bit of pressure and expectation, but none so much as my own."

Waddell recorded the fastest time in the heats and semifinals but the medal race didn't go completely to plan, as Switzerland's Xeno Muller implemented a new strategy which forced Waddell to call on all his reserves.

"It was an incredibly tough race, one of the hardest I have ever done," said Waddell. "I typically had a very strong middle phase of the race and Xeno tried to surprise me during that phase by really pushing it. It meant I was behind in the last 500m, which was an unusual situation - typically I had popped through the pack at that stage. But that is something you prepare for and train for every day."

Waddell took control over the last 300m and powered home to win by eight metres in 6m 48.90s, taking revenge on Muller who had won gold in Atlanta where Waddell finished seventh.

It was rowing's first gold since the coxless four in Los Angeles, and was the beginning of a remarkable period of success that has continued to this day. The likes of Mahe Drysdale, Hamish Bond, Eric Murray and the Evers-Swindell twins took inspiration from Waddell's feats and funding started to flow into the sport off the back of the Sydney gold.

Born in Te Kuiti, Waddell played junior representative rugby for Waikato before settling on rowing. He made swift progress, winning consecutive world championships in 1998 and 1999 before his Sydney triumph. After two America's Cup campaigns with Team New Zealand, Waddell returned to rowing for the 2008 Olympics. He lost out to Mahe Drysdale in a memorable selection duel, before finishing fourth alongside Nathan Cohen in the double sculls in Beijing.

Biography: Rob Waddell

• Attended three Olympics: 1996, 2000 and 2008.

• Won single sculls gold in 2000, rowing's first Olympic gold in 16 years.

• Waddell also played representative rugby for Waikato, is a judo black belt and sailed in three America's Cup campaigns.

• Won the Halberg Supreme three times.

How we did it

This list was drawn up by expert Herald and Radio Sport journalists from our team covering the Rio Olympics.

It wasn't easy, partly because of the number of fantastic feats over the last century or so and partly because of the difficulty of comparing performances across sports and eras.

The first ground rule was that only gold medallists would be considered. That was tough considering the likes of Nick Willis (silver, 2008), Dick Quax (silver, 1976), Paul Kingsman (bronze, 1988) and Bevan Docherty (silver and bronze, 2004 & 2008) provided some of our most memorable Olympic moments.

We also agreed potential success in Rio wouldn't be taken into account. The list was also restricted to the Summer Olympics, otherwise Annelise Coberger, our own Winter Olympics medallist may have featured quite prominently.

Each member of the panel wrote their own list before we came together to thrash it out five at a time. It was a head-scratcher, but in a good way because it was a celebration of success.

List so far

No 25: Alan Thompson
No 24: Norman Read
No 23: Ted Morgan

No 22: Sir Russell Coutts
No 21: Paul MacDonald
No 20: Hamish Bond and Eric Murray

- NZ Herald

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