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New Zealand's Greatest Olympians - Number 17: Mahe Drysdale

We’re counting down New Zealand’s 25 greatest Olympians. Today, rower Mahe Drysdale.
Golden glow: Mahe Drysdale on the podium after being crowned Olympic champion at the 2012 Games in London. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Golden glow: Mahe Drysdale on the podium after being crowned Olympic champion at the 2012 Games in London. Photo / Mark Mitchell

• Bronze: Single Scull, Beijing, 2008
• Gold: Single Scull, London, 2012

Mahe Drysdale has fashioned a crème de la crème Olympic career, regardless of his pursuit for consecutive gold medals in Rio.

The ease of his stroke creates a Wind In The Willows-type illusion of a languid paddle downriver. The markers tell a different story as his boat rifles through the water.

At 33, Drysdale was New Zealand's oldest champion from London. He was arguably the athlete with the most to consider when contemplating four further years of toil.

In addition, he is a five-time world champion, a victor at numerous global boutique events and a Beijing bronze medallist. He can achieve little more in the sport, yet seeks an opportunity to crown his legacy.

"I have to decide whether winning another Olympic gold would be as good as the first and whether I have the passion," Drysdale said in the London aftermath.

The Rio build-up is different. Drysdale was favourite ahead of Beijing and London as the defending world champion.

In Beijing, an illness leading in meant he had expended his energy with 200m to go and couldn't hold on. He admitted to no memory of the final strokes, after which he collapsed in the boat and was stretchered away.

The result followed a sapping trial in March against Sydney Olympic champion Rob Waddell. The duel was locked at 1-1 heading into a final where Waddell suffered a repeat of his heart condition, atrial fibrillation, which he described as "like rowing in mud".

At London, Drysdale hit the front in the third 500m and held off Czech Ondrej Synek. He became the second-oldest man to win the Olympic single sculls. He would have to win at Tokyo to take the elder statesman title from Harry Blackstaffe, who turned 40 during the 1908 regatta on the Thames.

A belated return in 2013 saw Drysdale ousted from the world championship quarter-finals. A fractured rib from a bike crash hindered preparation after a post-Olympic sabbatical.

Drysdale wrote an email at 4.30am the following day, describing the impact of missing the world championship podium for the first time since transferring to the single sculls in 2005.

He acknowledged the result showed "the truth about the old saying Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance".

The upshot was this summary: "I expect to be back on the podium in Amsterdam next year and pushing for gold again in three years [at the Olympics]."

He duly produced a second wind, earning silver behind Synek at the last two world championships.

Drysdale's career has been punctuated with injury and illness like those of 2013 and 2008. His maiden world championship in 2005 also suffered an impediment when a waterskier drove into him on Lake Karapiro and cracked two vertebrae in his spine.

He suffered another setback in December when coach Dick Tonks was cut from the Rowing New Zealand ranks for coaching overseas athletes without permission. A deal eventually allowed Tonks to maintain ties with Drysdale until Rio, but not without considerable stress and angst.

Despite his bouts with adversity, Drysdale is already a Great Olympian. Success in Rio will only gild his reputation.

Biography: Mahe Drysdale

• Although born in Melbourne, Drysdale is closely associated with the Bay of Plenty where he went to school at Tauranga Boys' College.
• Watching Carl Lewis win gold at the 1988 Games in Seoul inspired him to want to be an Olympic champion.
• He tried most sports at school but had almost given up his Olympic dream when he started rowing for fun at the University of Auckland.
• Drysdale went on to win five world championships as well as Olympic gold and bronze despite ongoing back problems and three bike crashes.

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 only 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
No 19: Rob Waddell
No 18: Bruce Kendall

- NZ Herald

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