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There's no better place to start with the romantic, slightly mysterious, rise of Mahe Drysdale, world champion single sculler, than his name.

"Sometimes people expect me to be a Maori or Polynesian and are surprised when a tall white boy walks in the room," the 26-year-old Drysdale says.

Mahe had already been conceived when his parents, Alan and Robin, visited the Seychelles and fell in love with the name of the main island, Mahe. It is now a name on everyone's lips.

Drysdale charged into sporting legend last week when he kicked off the haul of four gold medals at the world rowing championships in Japan.

Drysdale's rise has been more speedboat than rowboat. A member of 2004 Olympic four, he has triumphed in his first year of single sculling after quitting the elite training set-up for Europe, then convincing the selectors to give him his chance after winning the national title.

There is no rowing in the family history, but Drysdale still contends, stoutly, that there is something in the blood which drives him to be something in the water.

He is powered by fierce determination inherited, he says, from his grandfather, one of New Zealand's most famous businessmen, Sir Robert Owens, who had a big influence on his life, particularly as Drysdale's parents separated when he was 10.

His grandmother, Lady Joy Owens, a sprightly 80-year-old from Mt Maunganui who was this week on a golfing sortie with her mates in Australia, also plays a big part in the Drysdale story, as well as rowing's development programme.

As for the other influences: Rowing New Zealand has put a firmer grip on the oar in the past decade, evolving from being run by volunteers to a hard-nosed if still hard-up organisation.

And of course there is Dick Tonks, the low-key taskmaster, New Zealand's head coach and 1972 Olympic silver medallist, who in his famously downbeat manner recalls that he always preferred to train than race.

Drysdale's rowing career started with what university students might regard as a romantic weekend, the Easter tournament in Dunedin.

He had previously resisted approaches from the Tauranga Boys High School rowing coaches. Instead, he dabbled in all sports (apart from rugby) including canoe polo, in which he made the national squad.

In 1997, while studying for his bachelor of commerce at Auckland University, Drysdale set off for the Dunedin tournament using a novice eight as his ticket.

"I wanted to go for the drinking, not the rowing," he says.

"The drinking was good and the rowing was pretty dreadful. But for that, I'm not sure I would be here now."

He club rowed, then quit for his studies. But before this break Drysdale had met rowing legend Rob Waddell. Here, he thought, was an ordinary bloke of about the same size who was doing extraordinary things. It was Waddell's gold medal row at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 which inspired Drysdale to take up the oar again.


Rowing New Zealand quickly spotted the talent. Drysdale not only has the long muscular frame of a rower, but a superior ability to convert and utilise oxygen.

The rest, you might say, is history. Yet if Drysdale, Tonks and co have their way, there are many more chapters to be written, including at the Beijing Olympics.

And these must be written with blistered and calloused hands, drenched in sweat and powered by a year-round training regime which leaves Drysdale "feeling like a zombie". Elite rowers are often so tired that they have no appetite, and must force food down.

This is not a place for the faint-hearted, and while Drysdale may have physical advantages, it is the mental ones which make the difference. Enter the figure of Owens, the transport and shipping businessman and Air New Zealand chairman, who died of cancer in 1999.

Sir Robert, a self-made millionaire with the common touch, wore many hats and mayoral chains. He was one of the father figures to Drysdale.

Drysdale has a strong relationship with his father, now in Brisbane, but Drysdale snr wasn't around during his teenage years.

"I'm very determined, very stubborn, probably a bit pig-headed and pretty confident in my ability," says Drysdale.

"It comes from my grandfather I think. He's been a huge influence in my life. My mother constantly reminds me that I remind her of him.

"We always had a quite a special bond - I think some of it is the way you grow up and you see how he acts. It's probably in the genes a bit as well.

"I lived with him for a while when I was aged 16 to 20, when I was at university, and he probably saw my potential. He would show me the board reports and the history of the company, although I got to learn a lot more about him from his friends and people who worked for the company."

Lady Joy Owens has played her part as well. Drysdale had only just started for the insolvency firm Ferrier Hodgson when he was picked in a New Zealand development crew in 2001.

Ferrier Hodgson pushed the young man to follow his sporting dream and chipped in with a $10,000 boat. But his grandmother has been his prime financial backer.

And more ... when New Zealand Rowing faced a crisis last year when seven under-23 rowers were unable to meet the $7500 bill for travelling to Europe, new chief executive Craig Ross remembered her offer of support. She now contributes $70,000 a year.

This is the world of rowing, a sport that survives mainly on Sparc and gaming money. Only Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell stand above this, through their commercial pull.

Drysdale - who can join this glamour grade - and the other gold medallists will get $40,000 each from Sparc. But without his grandmother's support he would have lived on $20,000 last year, during which time he joined his girlfriend Emma O'Connor in London and launched his single sculling career on the Thames River and in Europe.

Yet Drysdale seems unperturbed by the financial constraints, saying he could quite easily have lived on the Sparc money. Life in Cambridge is cheap, and rowers have little time or energy for luxuries. While Drysdale's future may be fixed in a boat, he has no fixed abode of now.


This is a familiar story of rowing. Mike Stanley, the world champion of the early 1980s, is the man who dragged rowing out of the volunteer era, instituting a board.

Stanley, rowing's chief executive from 1994 to 2003, trained as a teacher during a rowing career which left him "without a bean".

He was rowing's first full-time staffer, using a Sport North Harbour office assisted by a laptop and one-quarter of a secretary's services.

When Lisa Holten, a former national coxswain, approached Stanley saying he needed her help, rowing got its second staff member.

Holten is still the office manager, and rated by one and all as a rowing hero.

There were stresses and strains during these changes as club people protested against a centralised training programme based at Lake Karapiro, and even claimed the sport had been hijacked by a "North Shore mafia".

Now, rowing has an annual budget of around $4 million, a high-performance manager in Andrew Matheson, and Ross has contracted the rowers.

A new Olympic selection criteria, started in the Stanley era, is based around the ability to make the world championship finals and has left notables such as Ian Smallman and Rob Hellstrom in the wake.

Both had helped to qualify boats for the 2004 Athens Olympics, but were replaced after the trials that year as part of the new hard-nosed attitude.

In a departure from the past, Ross and other officials personally informed the devastated rowers, part of Ross' attempt to change some of rowing's culture. (Ross remembers with emotion that he played alongside Smallman's father, Peter, in the Bay of Plenty rugby pack of the late 1970s.)

Despite these changes, there is still an old-fashioned thread to the sport which is typified by Tonks, who coached three of the four world championship medallists in Japan.

The 54-year-old has notched about 10 world and Olympic titles, including with Philippa Baker, Brenda Lawson, the Evers-Swindells and Waddell.

Typically, he says his record is "like a pimple on a gnat's arse" compared with some of the overseas greats.

He suggests that coaching was more fun in the days when he wasn't getting paid, when he was a railway storeman and carpet spinner in Wanganui.

One of his coaching knacks is an ability to reduce the "check" in a boat's progress. And while he will drool over the sight of a classy crew in action, he never allows cosmetics to get in the way of results.

"The hardest part is getting the timing right when the body changes direction. If you don't get the timing right, some of the force is working against the boat."

Tonks is hard on his rowers, hard on himself. The only one of his races he remembers with any satisfaction, in terms of his form, is the 1972 Munich Olympics when the coxless four won silver.

Tonks says: "I hardly achieved any of my goals in rowing. And most successful sportsmen don't make good coaches. The ones who have achieved all their goals and try to do it again struggle.

"The miles and miles of training have given me the foundation of how I train others. You've got to do the miles.

"With a horse, you hold it back, otherwise it will run itself to death. You've got to push humans because they've got a natural barrier ... I've learned it's a mental one.

"But it's not just about following a programme. Some days you look at the rowers, watch them carry the boat, and you can pick where they are at. If they're knackered, it's no good pushing them again."

Tonks eschews team meetings, and saves any fury for the water where the rowers get to feel rather than hear his frustration.

This is a man who pushes the rowers, then pushes the glory on to them. He says for all the planning, success relies heavily on the right athletes turning up.

Attention will focus on his combination with Drysdale, who will go against historical trends where former crewmen struggle to sustain early single sculling success.

The future might further test the still developing relationship between rower and coach, who came together in March.

They had one bust-up in Germany, when Drysdale trained on his own for a day, but the rower says this led to a strengthening of their bonds.

Does Drysdale have any regrets?

"Well, after what happened on Saturday, I'd do it all again and twice as hard to experience that feeling of crossing the line first. I want to stay a world champion and win in Beijing."