Rob Waddell was part of Team New Zealand in the America's Cup last year and will be the New Zealand Commonwealth Games team's chef de mission this year. He talks to Andrew Alderson about those roles.


On September 23, 2000, you were the reason New Zealand continued to claim a gold medal every Olympics we've had a full team at since 1952. How do you translate that ability to deal with pressure into your new role as chef de mission at the Commonwealth Games and summer Olympics?

RW: When I look back at Sydney, the biggest expectation was my own. You're the person who gets up in the morning and does the work. It's more important to focus on the process than the outcome. It wasn't just about the gold medal, it was about the motivation of making a boat go fast.

The flipside is the empathy I developed in 2008. I had the heart issue and got close to the Olympic podium [Waddell and Nathan Cohen finished fourth in the double sculls], so I've covered both ends of the results spectrum. I've had success and failure so have an understanding as to what athletes go through, regardless of result. I've always focused on personal bests. If athletes do that, it's something to be proud of.


Perhaps surprisingly, I believe my biggest achievements have been outside Sydney. That's probably not how the public perceives it but coming back for that 2008 single scull trial was a massive challenge. I got a huge amount out of that five months because I hadn't rowed for seven years and was 20kg overweight. Taking on the best single sculler in the world [Mahe Drysdale] was ambitious but I was motivated and felt proud of what I got out of myself.

As chef de mission, I think you've got to look at the circumstances faced by each athlete, understand their environment and do what you can to get them into the perfect frame of mind for competition.

HoS: Has your rowing background helped in the role so far?

RW: Yes, straight away I've felt like I've got an understanding of what's going on as an athlete, having spent the best part of 20 years in high performance sport. However, I'm guilty of probably not taking enough time to recognise the work which used to go in on the organisational side. I'm getting an appreciation for that now.

HoS: How much has Emirates Team New Zealand contributed to your management ethos?

RW: It's helped me understand what goes on in a wider team environment and opened my mind to the importance of meeting people and dealing with our commercial partners in the NZOC role. Before Team New Zealand, I spent years as an individual athlete but suddenly I was expected to help, motivate and work with the same guys who wanted to beat me on to the A boat. That is an unspoken thing in a team; everyone wants to be on the starting side, that's human nature. Fortunately we had a strong culture set by Sir Peter Blake and continued by Grant Dalton which said it didn't matter who was on the boat as long as it went as fast as possible. It's an unselfish culture, where you become a better team player by putting aside your own agenda.

HoS: Some see the America's Cup as a corporate event, some see it as an event between national teams. How do you see it?

RW: I've always thought of it as a positive thing for New Zealand in terms of the profile the country gets from it. New Zealanders are on crews throughout the event but I have always felt it's a national endeavour. As an athlete, it's a competitive thing regardless of whether you're racing for a corporation or a country. We felt proud of our New Zealand identity in San Francisco. The guys could've all gone and sailed elsewhere but stuck with Team New Zealand. It was a driving force in our motivation.


HoS: What role should families play in the management of New Zealand's Olympic athletes?

RW: Some athletes need a bubble to absorb the Olympic environment but we must also create the feeling of a wider team. I don't want to force anything on anyone but I know the wives and partners were a crucial part of our support system in San Francisco. I also think of the important role Sonia [Waddell's wife is a double Olympic rowing finalist in her own right] has played in my career.

In the past, New Zealand Olympic teams have had a good system of support. We tend to take four to five former athletes to the Games to help - and have blended that more with families, be it children, partners, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. In 1996, [at Waddell's first Olympics in Atlanta] my mother and father came and I found it beneficial to have them around.

HoS: How have your three children coped with travelling between Cambridge and San Francisco last year?

RW: Kids have a great way of bringing you back down to earth. We live on a farm where we look after a few racehorses and a small flock of sheep to tidy up the grass. We had a ram arrive recently. He was quite an athletic-looking ram and we needed to find him a name. I suggested Sir Tristram or Zabeel given Cambridge Stud is nearby but the kids decided Mahe was the perfect fit.

HoS: What's next on the agenda?

RW: I've got another scoping trip to Glasgow ahead of the Commonwealth Games and I'm off to check out Rio this year.