Eric Verdonk carried on the grand tradition of New Zealand single scullers. New Zealand produced world champions Billy Webb, Dick Arnst and Darcy Hadfield in the early years of the 20th century. Later Murray Watkinson became a much-respected single sculler. In more recent times, Philippa Baker, Brenda Lawson, Rob Waddell, Mahe Drysdale, Sonia Scown (Waddell), Duncan Grant and Emma Twigg have all been world-class single scullers.
Verdonk certainly belonged in that company.
The North Shore club oarsman never received quite the credit he deserved winning the bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in one of the blue riband events on the Olympic rowing schedule, the single sculls.
He was first in his heat, third in the semi-final and in the final was some distance behind two legends of the sport, East German Thomas Lange and West German Peter Michael Kolbe, but well ahead of the fourth-placed Australian, Hamish McGlashan.
Verdonk all but repeated his bronze medal effort four years later at Barcelona, finishing a close fourth in the 1992 Olympic single sculls final. This was a tough Olympic campaign. He finished second in his heat, won the repecharge, was third in the semi-final and then pushed hard for a medal until the closing stages of the final. He eventually finished 3½ seconds behind bronze medallist Kajetan Broniewski of Poland.
The lanky blond-haired Verdonk had signalled his arrival on the international stage with a single sculls bronze medal at the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, a race won by rowing legend Stephen Redgrave (and a fourth placing in the double sculls).
He was sixth in the single sculls world champs at Copenhagen in 1987 and over the next few years returned world championship third and fifth placings at Lake Barrington, Australia, in 1990, and Vienna, Austria, in 1991. He was also first and second at the famous Henley Diamond Sculls.
At domestic level, Verdonk dominated his specialty event, winning the New Zealand single sculls title every year from 1987-93, seven times in all, beating the mark that was previously held by Hamilton’s Jim Hill for most consecutive single sculls titles. He also won six national double sculls titles, in 1987-88, 1989-90, 1992 and 1994, with four different team-mates. There was also a quadruple sculls title in 1991, and a coxless pairs title in 1986, meaning he won a total of 15 redcoats.
Verdonk was born in Taihape, but his family came from Holland – Dutch was his first language. His parents immigrated in 1953. His first experience in a rowing shell came at Westlake Boys’ High School in Auckland (the same school as another Olympic medallist, Barrie Mabbott) and he helped the school’s eight to win the prestigious Maadi Cup.
He joined the North Shore club as a junior in 1973, coming under the influence of outstanding coach Brian Hawthorne.
But it wasn’t until 1986, when he was 27, that he took up single sculling seriously. He was relatively light for a top single sculler (85kg), but his superb technique nullified any disadvantage.
Having retired from rowing, Verdonk, after 20 years as a boat-builder, changing professions and sold life, medical, income protection and trauma protection insurance. He continued to belong to the North Shore club and to row to a good standard at Masters level.