Blast from the past - Rob Waddell
Perhaps few athletes in the history of New Zealand rowing have made quite the seismic impact of Rob Waddell.
The 2m tall single sculls legend was an invincible global force for a three-year period, snaring back-to-back world titles in 1998 and 1999 capped by his memorably Olympic triumph at Penrith Lakes at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Yet perhaps his greatest legacy is his whole-hearted professional approach to the sport which helped revolutionise elite rowing in this country and ushered in a period of unprecedented Kiwi rowing success.
Raised in King Country, Waddell was introduced to rowing as a boarder at Auckland’s King’s College. Initially struggling to come to grips with the sport he refused to give in even taking a rowing machine home for extra training. His perseverance started to pay off when aged 16 – and coupled with a sudden growth spurt - he made a giant leap forward.
“I knew rowing could be something I could be good at, so when I made the first team at school, it was one of my proudest moments,” he recalls.
His rise was meteoric. Aged 19 he appeared in both the coxed pair and coxless pair at the 1994 World Championships but after being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation - a heart irregularity – he switched to the single sculls to avoid the prospect of letting down team-mates.
In his new event he placed seventh on his Olympic debut in Atlanta 1996 before the following year experiencing what he describes as “a moment of realisation” at a regatta in Ratzeburg, Germany.
The previous day he had been heavily beaten and overawed by Andre Willms, but with the help of his then coach, Steve Gunn, he decided to revolutionise his approach.
“I realised if I focused on what I was doing, I could beat these people,” he explains. “This served me well in the years that followed and was a big turning point.”
Adopting this fresh mental attitude and cranking up both the duration and intensity of his training under new coach, Dick Tonks, the next season Waddell emerged a different athlete.
In 1998 he defeated Olympic champion Xeno Muller of Switzerland to take singles sculls gold at the World Championships in Cologne before retaining his title the following year in St Catharine’s Canada - a season he describes as the best of his career.
Yet his greatest moment came at the Sydney Olympics when he shrugged off the pressure of favouritism to defeat Muller and secure gold in a brutally fast no-holds-barred final.
“I remember it as one of the hardest races I’ve even been involved in,” recalls Waddell. ‘Xeno really put some pressure on in the middle of the race and I remember reaching 1300m thinking this pace is unsustainable, we won’t last the race at this speed.”
Thankfully, Waddell claimed victory by more than a boat length. It was a moment of immense relief for the man from Te Kuiti.
Post-Sydney he sought a fresh challenge and switched sports to feature as a grinder in the America’s Cup team. An outstanding all-round athlete he also represented Waikato at rugby but after two America’s Cup campaigns he returned to rowing in an effort to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Pitched into a three-race decider against Mahe Drysdale to determine the one New Zealand selection spot available in the men’s single sculls, Waddell lost out 2-1 in the high-profile duel, his heart problem recurring in the decisive final race.
Missing out on his favoured single sculls, Waddell competed alongside Nathan Cohen in the double sculls at the Beijing Games, but there was to be no glorious finale to his competitive Olympic career as the pair finished fourth in the final.
“Beijing is the one Olympics I feel genuinely disappointed about,” he explains. “I believe we underperformed there, my reflection was that with more time we would have done better.”
Waddell enjoyed 13 years as part of the America’s Cup set up but today the father-of-three is giving back to sport in the capacity of Chef de Mission of the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games team. Taking up the role at the 2014 Glasgow Games and also fulfilling to role in Rio 2016, Waddell and his team work on planning and preparation, selection, logistics, media and creating a positive team culture.
It is a role he is committed to through to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and one in which he relishes.
“I never would have thought I would have the chance to be involved in an area I care greatly about,” he adds. “I love seeing New Zealanders do well in sport and it is great to be able to make an impact even in the tinniest way.”
Also working as commercial lead for Cycling NZ, Waddell – who lives on a thoroughbred race horse farm on the Waikato – remains deeply embedded to sport.
Yet despite his accomplishments in sailing and today as a leading sports administrator, it will always be his rowing achievement he will best be remembered. It is a sport which has
“Rowing has developed me so much as a person,” he says. “I am a big fan of that quote from Sir Edmund Hillary who said, ‘it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.’ I think that is how I reflect on my time in rowing. I am proud of what I achieved and I felt like I did my best in victory or defeat.”