Shades of Halberg in Kiwi’s epic medal win

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 05/08/2012

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On the day he matched Sir Murray Halberg's feat, Olympic rowing champion Mahe Drysdale drew on the master athlete's mantra. He knew he had some "scared men" to beat.

Drysdale, like Halberg in the 5000m at the Rome Olympics 52 years ago, delivered New Zealand a second gold medal in an hour.

As Halberg entered the Olympic Stadium in 1960, he heard the tannoy announcer declare his young training partner Peter Snell had just won the 800m gold medal.

Halberg said to himself: "If Pete can do it, so can I." Drysdale experienced a similar sensation at Lake Dorney last week. Except he felt it twice.

The first surge came a day before his own race, watching double scullers Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan summon a withering finishing burst to win New Zealand's first gold medal of the regatta. Then, like Halberg with Snell, Drysdale rode the ripple of joy created by world champion pair Hamish Bond and Eric Murray blitzing the field.

Drysdale was "in the starting blocks when the national anthem was playing for the men's pair winning". He couldn't have wished for better motivation. "It's something you're very aware of. It does give you a huge lift and huge confidence and you want to go out to perform."

The five-time world champion single sculler's respect for Halberg is evident. Halberg was a mentor, almost a spiritual guide, to the New Zealand squad at Athens in 2004, Drysdale's first Olympics.

"I know Murray spoke to us on more than one occasion and some of his advice has been great," said Drysdale, who recalled some sage Halberg advice before setting out for Lake Dorney.

"Even though I was feeling pretty crap this morning [after throwing up with nerves after breakfast], I tried to walk around the boat park looking confident and ready to go."

Drysdale walked past Czech Republic sculler Ondrej Synek's room and saw his great rival and friend "with his head down and realised he was in a very similar situation to me".

"I remember one of the things Murray said us back in 2004. When he was sitting in the warm-up room [in Rome], and they were all sitting there together, he said, 'I've just got to beat 12 scared men.'

"That was some pretty good advice because you're going through the wringer and you know all your competitors are probably doing a pretty similar thing."

The parallels between Halberg and Drysdale don't end there. Both won gold medals after experiencing despair at their previous Olympic outing.

Halberg finished a disappointing 11th in the 1500m at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. The man who ran with a withered arm after a boyhood rugby accident, reinvented himself as a three-mile (or 5000m) runner. He won the 1958 Empire Games title in Cardiff and was the red-hot favourite in Rome.

Drysdale, who overcame an absorbing playoff series with 2000 gold medallist Rob Waddell for New Zealand's singles sculls berth in 2008, had to settle for bronze in Beijing. Between the opening ceremony, where he was New Zealand's flagbearer, and his semifinal at Shinyu, he was struck down by a strength-sapping virus.

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The memory of his collapse on the pontoon after the race is still very vivid. But the image of him pumping his fist in the air and slapping the water in delight at Lake Dorney, is now etched in much sharper relief.

Like Halberg before him, Drysdale was devastating between Olympics, winning two world titles.

Wait, there's still more symmetry. Snell and Halberg shared the same coach - Arthur Lydiard, a West Auckland milkman who trained his charges on the steep, bush-clad Waitakere Ranges. Drysdale, Bond and Murray are all coached by Dick Tonks - the Lydiard of the Lake - at Karapiro near Cambridge.

Halberg had to beat "12 scared men". Drysdale had to defeat but five, though he felt it was always going to come down, stroke by stroke, to his clash with Synek.

That's the way third-placegetter Alan Campbell - Great Britain's first single sculls medallist since 1928 - saw it too. "These two guys sitting beside me [Drysdale and Synek] are two of the greatest rowers to ever set foot in a boat ... it would be a discredit to say I could have matched them."

So, if some of the singles sculls field were scared of Drysdale, and others admiring, the poor pairs finalists must have been petrified of Bond and Murray. New Zealand's lay-down misere pair were unbeaten for four years between Olympic cycles.

Robert Kitson of The Guardian wrote that it would take a lurking crocodile to beat the Kiwi crew. So when the French crew shot out of the blocks like startled cockerels at Christmas, they must have had their sights set on silver. Gold was gift-wrapped, already destined for Lake Karapiro.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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