Key Points:

If Mahe Drysdale wins Olympic singles sculls gold tonight, put it down as one of the most courageous efforts in New Zealand's sporting history.

Imagine your sporting ambitions for the past four years boiled down to about seven minutes when you need to row the race of your life.

Then just as the quest gets serious at the start of Olympic week, you pick up a violent bug, which drains you of almost 5kg in weight, accompanied by regular vomiting and diarrhoea.

That's the scenario for the 29-year-old Aucklander who has dominated the event since winning the first of his three world titles in Gifu, Japan, in 2005.

After just sneaking into the final by finishing third in his semifinal, Drysdale reckons if he's in reasonable physical shape today, completing the race should present no difficulties.

Drysdale heads New Zealand's five-pronged assault on Olympic medals today. New Zealand made five finals in Athens four years ago too, but in medal terms it was a campaign too early and of the quintet only Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell in the double scull got on the dais, winning the country's first women's rowing gold.

This time it's different. There is a harder, more experienced edge to the New Zealand elite squad. Take Nicky Coles and Juliette Haigh in the coxless pair, for example. In Athens, they were floundering in the water halfway through their heat after a bungle, picked themselves up and made the final. A year later they won the world crown and their combination has been forged in a tough school in the intervening period.

Or George Bridgewater and Nathan Twaddle in the men's coxless pair. They were fourth in Athens, won the world title a year later and have been second in both world finals since to Australians Drew Ginn and Duncan Free. The duo are smarter, older and primed to mark the end of their partnership in the best possible fashion.

Then there's Rob Waddell, back after seven years with Team New Zealand and chasing another gold to sit with his Sydney 2000 single scull title, in harness with one of the best hopes for the future, Nathan Cohen.

Australia and Slovenian crews beat them on Wednesday and Waddell's expecting a dogfight today.

"I don't think we'll see the best from crews in our race until the last 500m in the final and we are very wary of that," he said. "It's what we've trained for."

It is Drysdale, New Zealand's first finalist today, who will set the tone.

"The Olympics are a pretty special experience," he said. "It's here where you make a name for yourself."