For as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of the Olympics.
Some of my earliest sporting memories are watching the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics on TV as a six-year-old with my father and seeing the New Zealand flag being raised time and again to the tune of God Defend New Zealand. Even at that young age I was affected by what I saw. I remember the rowing and canoeing as highlights and, of course, Mark Todd and Charisma, and Russell Coutts in the sailing.
Los Angeles was New Zealand's most successful Games in terms of medal haul and is popularly remembered as the Games in which we won all our medals sitting down. I guess with that sort of influence it was no wonder that I ended up in a sport that requires one to sit down to participate. I was never really much good at sports on my feet and my parents weren't about to buy me a show jumping horse. I dabbled in sailing, but grew out of my optimist faster than I care to remember.
Rowing turned out to be the sport for me. It suited my 197cm frame and 211cm arm span and I was relatively fit as a 17-year-old so I took to it like a duck to water, so to speak.
In 1996 I was again watching the Games on TV with my dad. This time I had a new hero - Rob Waddell.
Rob didn't medal in Atlanta, he didn't even make the final of the single sculls, but I watched all of his televised races and cheered him on, willing him to go faster.
After this I brashly announced to my friends and family that I would one day go to the Olympics. As luck and fortune would have it, along with a whole lot of hard work and sacrifice, just four years later I not only got to meet my idol, I was also in the same Olympic rowing squad as him, and on my way to Sydney in the coxless four.
I guess that's how I felt when I entered the Olympic village. Lucky. If I could change anything about that time it would be that I should have felt more confident and sure of my ability. My crew and I had raced in Europe six weeks prior to the Games and caused a major upset by twice beating the Olympic favourites, Great Britain, a crew who included the already great Olympic rowers Steve Redgrave and Mathew Pinsent. We had the pedigree to perform well and we had some experience. Although this was my first Games, for the others of my crew it would be their third and second respectively.
I found it hard not to be distracted by the hype and the scale of the Games Village. Everything seemed to be huge, amazing and busy, and there was free everything from kit bags to bath soap and cameras being thrown around like they were going out of fashion. Everything that I had imagined and heard about the Games seemed to be true and often even better. It is a massive environment to find yourself in. One thing that I am glad that I had the opportunity to do was attend the opening ceremony. One of the greatest moments in my life was walking into that stadium and being part of that amazing occasion.
Olympic sports tend to fade into obscurity for four years and then find themselves back in the limelight literally five minutes before the gun goes off. This can have a major effect on athletes' psyche and their preparation in the last vital days of their buildup.
The current NZ rowing squad seem to have control over this - in spades. They appear relaxed and unfazed by the hype, in an environment that can only be compared to a pressure-cooker. Nearly all of them are current or former world champions, there are no less than three crews with current world best times to their names, multiple world cup titleholders and, for many, this is their third Olympic Games.
If you were going to pick a horse for a sure thing, they would come from this stable.
I only hope that my feeling about these guys and girls is right and they can take their confidence and ability as far as they can - and realise their dreams.
Blenheim resident Rob Hellstrom, winner of several national titles in Wairau colours, rowed in the NZ coxless four at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, finishing sixth.
- The Marlborough Express
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