Rob Waddell: A man on a mission

02:55, Jun 29 2013
rob waddell
After the heartbreak of San Francisco, Team New Zealand grinder Rob Waddell will now tackle his role as NZOC chef de mission.

When King's College novice rowing coach Don Mackay set eyes on 14-year-old Rob Waddell, he assumed he was trialling for the job of shrimpy pacesetter.

"He was short and rather scrawny and I considered him a likely cox, thinking that his disproportionately long arms would be ideal for carrying oars."

But Waddell would embarrassingly finish Mackay's eight-kilometre training runs ahead of most of the would-be rowers. "It became clear," Mackay recalls, "that he was a very determined boy."

rob waddell
FRESH FACE: Rob Waddell will the chef de mission for the New Zealand team at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

And then he saw Waddell's enormous, unshod feet. There was a theory that novices with large feet would eventually turn into large oarsmen. "So we decided to add Rob to the squad, in the hope that he would grow into his feet and become a rower."

And grow into his feet, and their expectations, the gangly teen surely did. Even in his craziest imaginings Mackay could scarcely have predicted that Waddell, 38, would compete at three Olympics for rowing, netting one gold medal, much less play for his province in rugby and compete for his country in two gruelling America's Cup sailing regattas. Oh, and be named New Zealand's new Olympic chef de mission in December.

All going to plan, next Sunday Waddell will line up with his Team New Zealand sail mates in San Francisco for a third attempt at bringing home that history-blighted trophy. The team must first beat Luna Rossa and Artemis to win the right to challenge Oracle for the cup. Of course, when it comes to the America's Cup, nothing is certain.


Waddell was in Los Angeles when he heard about the tragic death of Olympic gold medallist Andrew Simpson, when Artemis capsized during training. The death raised further questions about the safety of the fast and furious 72-foot development catamarans.

While the team always knew the design held potential for serious injury, to the point of being kitted out with oxygen bottles in case of a capsize, Waddell thought they'd probably seen the worst when Oracle flipped in San Francisco Bay in October.

"It was definitely a shock," Waddell says. It's not quite extreme sport akin to Formula One car racing, but "it's taken another level towards that".

"Definitely it's risky and dangerous and fast, but that does exist in other sports as well. For me personally, on the boat I feel comfortable still being a part of it."

Waddell's diverse sporting career has been as up and down and beset with drama and intrigue as the America's Cup itself - but without the court battles.

Despite unpromising beginnings, Waddell followed his brother, Dave, into rowing, using it as an outlet for tough teen times (he doesn't elaborate). He only made the King's rowing eight after taking an erg machine home over summer to improve. "He didn't plead his case to join rowing," Mackay says. "He just made sure he was good enough."

In terms of personal achievement, Waddell ranks qualifying for that rowing eight alongside his Sydney gold medal. "I'll never forget how good that felt. It was the first time I really set myself a challenge, worked damn hard towards it and achieved it."

It was up, up, up to Sydney 2000, via a creditable seventh at Atlanta in 1996, and an honours degree in management at Waikato University.

"I reached a turning point in my rowing career in 1997, where I was just always getting beaten by the same guys. I came to the realisation: 'What are you doing with your time? If you want to win you've got to beat these guys.' That was the first time I started to focus on just making the boat go really well, instead of worrying about what was happening around me. And that's just experience."

It's that first-hand experience that no doubt contributed to the Olympic Committee appointing Waddell as the replacement for Dave Currie, who was criticised for showboating and for the fiasco that saw champion shotputter Valerie Adams left off last year's Olympic start list.

Only an athlete can truly know how it feels to sit in a tippy boat in an Olympic final knowing, as at Sydney, that you're the country's last hope of a gold medal.

"It's as big as it gets. Let's be honest: first is one direction in your life and second is a very different direction. It's the most daunting crossroads I've ever faced, that half hour before the final. It's one thing to be in an Olympic final, it's another thing to sit there knowing you can win it."

What the public didn't know as the saviour of New Zealand's abysmal Sydney campaign crossed the line in first place, was that the race was fought not just against his competitors but also against a traitorous ticker.

Waddell inherited a template to excel - his father, Jim, played New Zealand university rugby, his mother, Susan, was a talented netballer and swimmer, and brother Dave also rowed for New Zealand. Waddell played rugby in King's College's first XV and earned a judo black belt while on a scholarship in Japan. He jokes that his own children will suffer no sporting expectations, because his endurance genes will dilute the "fast-twitch" pedigree of wife Sonia - herself a rowing Olympian and elite sprinting and cycling champion.

But it's determination rather than design that has set him apart.

About 1993, Waddell started randomly losing power mid-race and feeling as if he was rowing through cement. He mentioned it to uncle Norman Sharpe, a cardiologist.

Sharpe recalls Waddell worrying that he had some mental weakness. At the mention of heart palpitations, Sharpe ordered a few simple tests. Waddell was, in fact, suffering from paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, a condition causing an irregular heartbeat that can rob the heart of up to 25 per cent of its power.

Waddell negotiated Sydney on high doses of flecainide, a drug that slowed the heart. Surgery was the next step, but Waddell wasn't ready for the knife. So he gave up rowing and signed on to Team New Zealand.

There's no better illustration of the world of difference between rowing and grinding on a yacht than the transformation in Waddell's physique. At his rowing zenith, he was a trim 101 kilograms. Grinding on the 2003 and 2007 monohulls, he peaked at 130kg. He now weighs in at 114kg.

The latest boats - 72-foot catamarans - are faster and more nimble, and so must their crew be. "The monohulls are more about being strong. These are about being fit, fast and strong, and having agility and balance and control. You are doing 40 knots plus and you have to try to get to the other side of the boat. It's like trying to stand on a swiss ball. You almost feel a bit cheated because you watch the video afterwards and it doesn't seem to be as impressive. The G-forces, too, are unreal. You get thrown, literally."

With races lasting up to 40 minutes instead of rowing's seven minutes, it's also monumentally exhausting. Waddell gets the shakes if he hasn't eaten enough.

The intensity has stepped up still further since the team landed in San Francisco. Waddell is staying in an apartment near touristy Fisherman's Wharf with his wife and three children - Sophie, 10, Hayden, 7, and Madeleine, 5 - for the campaign's duration.

While Waddell's third Olympic campaign was heart-breaking (more about that later), he's hoping it will be third time lucky for sailing. Early indications suggest Team New Zealand has the edge on Luna Rossa. But with boat development continuing until race day, anything can happen.

Then there's the spectre of rule changes after Simpson's death. Talk of reducing the maximum racing wind speed from 33 knots to 23 knots would not amuse the New Zealand camp, which has designed for the upper range.

It can hardly get worse than 2003's "pretty humbling" 5-0 drubbing by Alinghi in Auckland. That humiliation taught Waddell a lesson in attention to detail, and rebounding from defeat.

"You've got to be really brutal in assessing what went wrong. And then work really hard at fixing it. Once you do that you start to get belief again, and with belief you can rise to the highest level again. But you've got to have the passion to follow that process through."

That commitment appears to be waning among a New Zealand public once so galvanised in their support that they donned red socks en masse.

"I feel it's a dormant interest," says Waddell, ever the diplomat. "People are still into it, but they've probably had enough of some of the in-fighting and carrying on."

Waddell calls it a job, but that's not how he sees it. Sport, he says, is about passion. And it was passion that drove his return to rowing in 2008, to challenge Mahe Drysdale for New Zealand's one single scull Olympics spot.

It was a rivalry that captivated, and divided, the nation: the Saviour of Sydney against the three-time world champion and current world record holder.

In the end, in the third of the best-of- three series, Waddell's heart condition "reared its ugly head" for the first time since he gave up rowing, ensuring Drysdale's domination. Maddeningly, Waddell had tried to have corrective surgery in Bordeaux before the trial, but was turned down because he had been symptom-free for years. (He eventually had the operation in Hamilton in 2009.)

Waddell instead combined with 2012 gold medallist Nathan Cohen, but the pair finished fourth, topping off a devastatingly disappointing comeback.

Despite all that, Waddell wouldn't expunge the episode. "I didn't win that trial, but it was one of the most exciting times I've ever had in sport. I was so, so motivated.

"I hadn't rowed for seven years, I had six months to try to beat the best guy in the world. I couldn't have done anything more. Although the result wasn't perfect, I take a lot of personal satisfaction from it."

If Drysdale sticks around for the 2016 Rio Olympics, the arch rivals will have to work together. Waddell says they never talked it out, but there's no lingering acrimony. "We're certainly very friendly. It was a strong rivalry, but those rivalries exist throughout sport. I'm behind him 100 per cent."

Managing that relationship will be just one of the challenges for Waddell as he steers New Zealand athletes through next year's Glasgow Commonwealth Games and then on to Rio.

As chef de mission, a job he defines as leading, organising and inspiring, he plans to visit individual sports "to see them in the coldest, darkest, wettest days of their training". He'll be looking for the kinds of factors that have helped New Zealand rowing achieve Olympic success - facilities, work ethic and centralised training.

With sports around the world caving in under the weight of drug abuse revelations, drug testing will also be in the spotlight. While Waddell doesn't discount the possibility that individual New Zealand sportspeople use drugs, he would be surprised to learn of systematic abuse among our Olympic athletes.

Despite having represented his country in two sports, and his province in one, Waddell still has bucket-list entries awaiting crossing off. No, he won't say what they are. But, first is the small matter of avenging a wrong done to a New Zealand America's Cup challenge in Californian waters in 1988, by snaring the prize with a zippy catamaran of our own.


1987: A New Zealand boat competes for the first time, backed by banker Michael Fay.

1988: NZ challenges US yachtsman Dennis Conner in San Diego, with an outsize yacht with the maximum waterline allowed by the race deed. Conner replies by building a catamaran, which, while against the spirit of sportsmanship, is not expressly prohibited. NZ lost the ensuing court battle and was beaten on the water.

1995: Kiwis don red socks in support of NZ's Black Magic, skippered by Russell Coutts and led by Sir Peter Blake, which has its revenge on Conner, beating him 5-0.

2000: Team NZ defends the cup in Auckland. An acrimonious split follows and Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth defect to Alinghi, of land-locked Switzerland.

2003: Coutts's Alinghi ends NZ's eight-year reign, defeating Team NZ 5-0 and prompting the Post headline "Alinghi v a dinghy".

2007: Led by Whitbread Round the World Race veteran Grant Dalton, Team NZ regains its pride – winning the challengers' Louis Vuitton Cup – but ultimately loses the finals, 5-2, to Alinghi.

2010: Alinghi – skippered by Kiwi Butterworth – loses to Oracle in an -schedule challenge.

2013: Team NZ, Luna Rossa and Artemis plan to compete for the right to face defenders Oracle. However, the death of Artemis sailor Andrew Simpson during training has thrown the event into turmoil, with rule changes and delays still possible.

The Dominion Post