NAPIER, New Zealand (Reuters) - Triple world champion Mahe Drysdale took time out to celebrate his selection as New Zealand’s single sculler for the Beijing Games after unexpectedly, and reluctantly, being put through a tough selection test against former Olympic winner Rob Waddell.
Drysdale, a late bloomer in competitive rowing, went off to the first cricket test between New Zealand and England in Hamilton earlier this month, to relax after winning a best-of-three showdown against Waddell.
“Yeah, I made it there and really enjoyed it,” Drysdale told Reuters in a telephone interview. “It’s nice to get away and do something a little bit different.
“I’m always a sports fan and it was nice to get away and watch other people be under pressure rather than myself.”
Drysdale found himself under pressure when Waddell, the 2000 Sydney Olympics single sculls gold medalist, returned to the sport after seven years on Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup sailing campaigns and expressed an intention to qualify for Beijing.
Because the Olympics allow just one entry per country in each event, Rowing New Zealand instigated a series of trials that culminated in the showdown between the two men on Lake Karapiro in early March.
The race-off created huge interest in New Zealand, with the story leading television news bulletins and newspapers and the deciding race broadcast live on television.
Drysdale won the first race but Waddell claimed the second, and the 29-year-old Drysdale realized he was in for a battle.
“I knew in that final race that I couldn’t let him have anything of the race so it was important that I made sure I never gave him a sniff.”
Drysdale won by six boat lengths, though it emerged that Waddell had suffered a recurrence of a long-standing heart condition that he had been able to control with medication in Sydney, but had not been troubled by for several years.
“I was disappointed, it’s never good to see someone like Rob struggle like that due to his health but I suppose it was more relief than anything,” Drysdale said of his feelings after the final race.
Drysdale, however, felt that he should never have been forced into the situation, making it known that he believed he had already proved himself and should have been automatically selected for the single sculls.
“He (Waddell) was out rowing in September (and) that was the first time we knew he was back,” said Drysdale. “Then, when he came back he was rowing and training but at this stage he didn’t really know what he was doing.
“Even into December, even though he was rowing, I never thought he was going for the single. That’s what he told me and what he had said to Rowing New Zealand as well, he was pursuing a crew boat.
“It wasn’t until January that I found out that he was interested in going for the singles.
“My thoughts were that Rowing New Zealand should have the faith in me. I was in the best shape of my life and (they) shouldn’t have given him the opportunity to trial for the single.
“I thought that it was in the best interests for us both in making it clear where we were headed, but Rowing New Zealand didn’t agree with me and we went through the trial process.”
Drysdale, who did not take up rowing until university and then quit the sport to concentrate on his Bachelor of Commerce studies, returned only when he watched Waddell win in Sydney.
He began work at an accountancy firm specializing in insolvency work — “I quite enjoyed it” — before he was selected in the coxless four to go to Athens.
The four made the final but did not win a medal and Drysdale then switched to the single-seater, where his performances took off.
He won the world championships in 2005, a remarkable feat given that he had been hit by a waterskier during a training accident and broken two vertebrae.
Ahead of the 2006 world championships in Britain, he suffered a stomach virus but still defended his crown.
That he won those titles is testament to the way he managed his training and conditioning programme to peak at the right time, something he said he now had to do twice this year.
“To face off the challenge from Rob I had to get into pretty good shape,” said Drysdale, who took his third successive world title in Munich last September.
“At the trials you have your final then you come back the next day and show that you can do it again and then the next day.
“You have to build yourself up mentally and physically every day, which you don’t have to do at the worlds.
“I wouldn’t be happy if I was going into the world champs with the preparation I have had, but I’m 99 percent there so it’s now a matter of coming back down then building it back up again and getting ready for Beijing.”
Editing by Clare Fallon