May 27, 2016 / 7:07 AM / in a year

Bucket list ticked, Drysdale back to defend title in Rio

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Olympic rowing champion Mahe Drysdale’s year off after his London campaign has not only refreshed him for his tilt at defending his single sculls title in Rio later this year, but also given him pause for thought about continuing until Tokyo.

Mahe Drysdale of New Zealand celebrates winning gold in the men's rowing Single Sculls final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Eton Dorney August 3, 2012. REUTERS/Pool

Drysdale, a five time world champion and bronze medalist at the Beijing Olympics, took 2013 off to “refresh his mind and body” and tick off some things on the bucket list.

He competed in Ironman triathlons, did the Coast-to-Coast multisport event where competitors, run, cycle and kayak the breadth of New Zealand’s South Island, and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Drysdale knew the year off was a risk -- fellow London gold medalist Joseph Sullivan also took time off after the Games and when he returned in 2013 was essentially dropped from the high performance program -- but he felt it was worth it in the end.

”Having that break was fantastic,“ Drysdale told Reuters in a recent telephone interview. ”I had been rowing for 12 years in the squad and there were a lot of things I wanted to achieve outside of the sport.

“Without that break I’d be a bit stale now and I‘m feeling very refreshed and excited and it gave me that love and passion for the sport again.”

Drysdale returned to the team in 2014 and got back into the swing of things in a hurry, winning both of his World Cup events, though he finished second in the world championships behind the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Synek by 0.73 seconds.

He again won both World Cup events in 2015 only for Synek to pip him for the world title by 0.34 seconds. The New Zealander, however, knew he was on the right path for Rio and keen to demonstrate that at a World Cup event in Lucerne this weekend.

”I was a bit annoyed with myself last year because I didn’t feel like I had raced to my best,“ he said. ”Knowing that I was only 0.3 second behind has a silver lining, because I knew that I could have been a couple of seconds faster.

“I very much know that I‘m on track, but obviously Ondrej is a great competitor and he’s never going to give it to you easily. It just re-affirmed to me that I need to be on my game in Rio.”

CAUGHT IN A ROW

Drysdale said his training times over the New Zealand summer had been “very good”. So good in fact he clocked a time just four seconds outside the world best of six minutes, 33.350 he set in Poznan in 2009.

He did, however, unwittingly get caught in the middle of very public dispute between coach Dick Tonks and Rowing New Zealand late last year over a dispute about whether Tonks could do freelance coaching with foreign crews.

The row escalated to an extent there were fears both Drysdale and the world champion women’s double scull of Zoe Stevenson and Eve Macfarlane would need to change coach or step outside the centralized program altogether.

”It was tough,“ Drysdale said. ”I guess it was more the fact of not knowing what was going to come out of it.

“As soon as the solution was reached it was a huge relief to the double and myself because we knew where we were going.”

Where they are going, he hopes, is back to the top of the Olympic podium in Rio. Then who knows? Perhaps Tokyo as a 41-year-old?

“Tokyo was never something that I thought could be on the horizon but after that break I have just loved the rowing so much and it’s so exciting to still be improving,” he said.

”I have been pulling out my best results ever in training. I guess that has made me 50-50 as to whether I continue.

”The biggest issue in that is could my body take another four years because ...you don’t recover as quickly.

“It does get harder.”

Editing by Amlan Chakraborty

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