Of all the Kiwi contenders in London, none has more riding on their success than single sculler Mahe Drysdale. MARC HINTON explains why.
For a brief moment the cheery countenance of one of the most respected men in New Zealand sport turns deadly serious. Mahe Drysdale, the lean, mean rowing machine from Cambridge, is asked if he needs gold in London to complete a career with one glaring omission. He pauses, ponders and then pounces, eyes blazing with an intensity we all recognise as his game face.
“Definitely,” nods this angular 33-year-old from the cool confines of the Karapiro boatshed where he's packed his trusty single scull away for another day.
“The Olympics has always been my dream. I'd give back all five of my world titles for one Olympic gold. I'm very proud of the results I've achieved but the Olympics is the pinnacle of our sport and that's what I want to win.”
There is, quite simply, no hiding from the reality for Drysdale who understands it's pointless dodging the big question. The London Olympic regatta, which gets under way next Saturday, will define his legacy. It is, after the dramatic events of Beijing four years ago, likely his final shot at redemption.
“After Beijing the decision wasn't ‘Are you going row in 2009?' The decision was ‘Do you want go to the London Olympics?' That's the same decision I'll make after London. ‘Do you want to go to Rio? Have you got another four years in you?' It's a four-year plan.”
For the last four, at times painful, years Drysdale has been dragging those black blades back and forth, back and forth, attempting to erase the memory of a Beijing regatta that unravelled like a bad dream. It started so promisingly, as Kiwi team flag-bearer for the opening ceremony, and ended in utter despair, as a stomach bug ripped the competitive fire right out of the big New Zealander.
Drysdale seemed assured of gold in Beijing. He had won all three world championships leading in, and had set, then reset, world's best times. But this is sport. The Games. There are no guarantees.
Somewhere between marching round the Bird's Nest and heading out for the semifinals at Shunyi, he picked up a gastrointestinal infection. From there the tale of triumph turned into one of tragedy.
Severely weakened, losing weight, sleep and energy in alarming quantities, Drysdale struggled to third in his semi and then, despite an heroic effort, faded to the bronze medal in the final. The image of him, post-race, depositing his breakfast into the man-made lake would become a defining one. He would have to be assisted out of the boat to the medal ceremony.
Later, he would reflect that he “rowed myself to stupidity”. But now there's a different perspective. “I wasn't rowing as well as I ever have before, and that was disappointing because whether you're sick or not you can still technically row as well as you can . . . that's what hurts most. If I was rowing as well as I had, maybe I would have held on.”
It's hard not to admire Drysdale's steadfast attitude to his defining failure. He may be haunted by it, but he's far from daunted.
“Sport is all about performing on one day, and that was the day I had to perform. Yes, I'd love to relive that moment and be healthy, but you've got to move on. I've got to put it right in London.”
Yet the decision to commit to his third Olympics wasn't purely about Beijing. “I loved the sport and felt like there was more I could achieve in it,” he says. “Either way I probably would have been back. If I quit rowing and started work I'd have more money, but more money doesn't get you to the London Olympics.” The 2.01m sculler says once he recommitted his motivation was simple: to be “so strong no matter what happened in London I'd get through it . . . in 2009 you saw what Beijing did to me. I went unbeaten, and set a new world best time. That was satisfying knowing I was back on track”.
Truth is the hard way has become the Drysdale way. Serious back problems had to be overcome around 2010-11 and even this Olympic buildup hit a speed bump when he was wiped off his bike in Munich and injured his shoulder.
Drysdale, like all these Kiwi rowers, trains his butt off. That's a given at Karapiro. “Miles makes champions” is their motto, and behind the direction of the great Dick Tonks it's a mantra they live by.
For him that's meant thinking outside the square. Because of his back he rows just once a day. So he loads up cardio-vascular fitness on the bike which is a cross-training aspect he's come to treasure.
Like all rowers, Drysdale has his good days and bad. Fridays are the toughest of the week, and Sundays the best because he gets to stay in bed and be normal. December is the hardest month - “You think, man, why am I doing this?” - and the big regattas the easiest - “that's when you forget the hard times and just enjoy the thrill of competition”.
He's also tight with his chief rivals. It's a single sculling thing. Forced into a life of solitude on the water, around the rowing park they let their guard down a little. “On the water it's fierce, no holds barred, but off the water you can be friends and enjoy each other's company,” says Drysdale.
Czech Ondrej Synek is the chief rival for gold, but with veteran Olaf Tufte, Brit Alan Campbell and German Marcel Hacker, Drysdale forms a quintet who have dominated the dais over the last eight years.
But inspiration remains close by on a daily basis. For direction, assessment or a well-chosen word he turns to Tonks; for peer stimulation he has double-sculler Nathan Cohen - “one of the toughest competitors I've faced anywhere” - and the indomitable pair, in whom he says he's “taken a bit of interest” of late. Before that there were the Evers-Swindell twins “who we all looked up to”.
WATCH DRYSDALE work his way down the 2km course, and it can be a study in perfection: Longs legs coiled beneath, unfurling in an explosive outpouring of energy; meaty paws sending twin oars rhythmically scything through the water; boat thrusting with each stretch of the sinew.
It is a beautiful mixture of synchronicity, strength and speed, and when the big Kiwi has body and mind willing the results are devastating.
Let's face it, Drysdale is comfortable in his skin. He and partner Juliette Haigh (also going for gold in the women's pair) have each other to lean on at their Cambridge lifestyle block.
As a five-time world champ, and bookies' co-favourite for gold, he's in a good place heading into London. He knows he's got speed his rivals can't match.
“It's a nice place to be - everyone else has got to find a way to beat you . . . I know if I put it all together someone has got to pull out something pretty special to beat me.”
In a funny way Drysdale's back issues have made him even stronger. He faced them down in 2010 - when he was beaten by Synek at the Karapiro worlds - and into 2011's rebuilding campaign.
“When I look back [on 2010] I trained maybe 30 per cent of what I would have liked, and to come away with a silver medal. I thought ‘Man, I'm in with a shot'.”
Since then his body of work has been building impressively. Last year he had a gold and silver in World Cup regattas before reclaiming his world title in Bled, shading Synek by just under half a second.
“That was one of my toughest years because I had to do so much to get back. I ended up doing probably 40 per cent of the training over a one-year period and it took me five months to get that back.
“When I got to Bled I thought ‘I'm not sure I can win'. The pressure's on then. That was hugely satisfying knowing I wasn't quite 100 and still managed pull it off.”
Now, after a win and a loss over Synek in the London buildup? “I'm the most relaxed I've ever been, I feel the most prepared I've ever been, and everything is on track.”
No pressure, Mahe, but your legacy is riding on it.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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