New Zealand rowing has lost a friend, a mentor, a perfectionist and a true gentleman of the sport with the death of Eric Verdonk.

The world-class rower lost his battle with cancer last Friday, aged 60, leaving behind wife Mandy, daughter Sieska and son Hugo.

Born in land-locked Taihape in 1959, Verdonk developed a great passion for the water after moving north as a youngster and winning the Holy Grail of secondary school rowing, the Maadi Cup with his Westlake Boys' High crew in 1976.

From then on, Verdonk was sold on the sport and his quiet resolve, determination and diligence allowed him to fashion an enviable world-class career lasting until his final days.

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He won his Maadi Cup medal in an eight as a teenager for Westlake Boys', but dominated the domestic single sculls scene for more than a decade despite only taking it up seriously when he was 27.

Eric Verdonk endeared himself to the entire Auckland rowing scene during a long and illustrious career.
Eric Verdonk endeared himself to the entire Auckland rowing scene during a long and illustrious career.

His seven national titles broke the New Zealand record for the most consecutive single sculls victories between 1987 and 1993.

In total, he won 15 national titles, including six in the double sculls.

But his record on the world stage also impressed.

Affable and talented rower Eric Verdonk had a wardrobe full of red coats.
Affable and talented rower Eric Verdonk had a wardrobe full of red coats.

Verdonk won bronze in the single sculls at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland, bronze in the 1988 Seoul summer Olympics and finished fourth in the single sculls at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

He competed at five world championships; his best performance was a third in Tasmania in 1990. Verdonk also became the first Kiwi to win a single sculls race at the Henley Royal Regatta. He finished second another year,

At the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Ontario, Canada, he won the double sculls and came second in the quad.

Born in Taihape six years after his parents had migrated from Holland, it was on Auckland's North Shore where he made his mark.

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He joined the North Shore Rowing Club in 1973 and quickly endeared himself to the entire Auckland rowing scene.

Upon his death the club wrote on social media: "A character of immense resilience, determination and courage, Eric's legacy will forever be etched in North Shore and the NZ rowing communities history."

It was these and other attributes that longtime friend and colleague Phillippa Baker-Hogan remembers well.

The Whanganui three-time world champion and two-time Olympic finalist described her old mate as a gentleman and a perfectionist.

"I knew Eric pretty well after spending a lot of time overseas with his in the early days," Baker-Hogan said.

"He really was a gentleman, an absolute perfectionist. Eric was a boatbuilder and it was often said he was the only man who could build a boat, row a boat and set up a boat."


Baker-Hogan was on hand at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in 1986 to witness Verdonk win bronze behind English rowing icon Steve Redgrave.

"I remember it well, it was where I won silver in the lightweight women's single sculls.

"Redgrave had already competed and won gold in other boats and was expected to walk away with the single scull as well, but he had to dig really deep to finally beat this little determined Kiwi guy.

"Brian Hawthorne coached Eric, myself and Whanganui's Des Healy in the early days and then Eric, Des and myself coached overseas at the same time in 1991.

"I was also competing at Oympics in Barcelona with Eric in 1992 when he finished fourth."

Verdonk was still competing in masters events as recently as last year.

After his retirement, Verdonk worked for Waitakere Sports Association and from 2017, was the head coach of the rowing club at Takapuna Grammar School. Last month, the school made him a lifetime member of their rowing club and the New Zealand Rowing Foundation this year awarded Verdonk a medal for his contributions to rowing in New Zealand.

While a stalwart of the North Shore Rowing Club since 1973, Eric Verdonk became head coach of Takapuna Grammar in latter years.
While a stalwart of the North Shore Rowing Club since 1973, Eric Verdonk became head coach of Takapuna Grammar in latter years.

"I was delighted for Eric when the job popped up for him to coach Takapuna Grammar seemingly out of nowhere. Seeing his crews on the water – beautiful and fast – epitomised his style," Baker-Hogan said.

"It is no mean feat for anyone to win two bronze medals in men's heavyweight single sculls at Olympic level. Eric was not a big man in stature, but his technique was flawless.

"I caught up with Eric just a month ago at the Rocket Foods New Zealand Championships where we shared medal presentation duties on the podium where his son Hugo and my son Blake stood for their respective ceremonies – it was a very special moment.

"My condolences go out to Mandy, Sieska and Hugo."