Rob Waddell was born in Te Kuiti in 1975 and grew up on a farm in the King Country. He took up rowing while in year ten at Kings College in Auckland. Despite being small and slightly uncoordinated when he started, Rob was determined and soon made it into the school’s top rowing team. Rob also showed all-round ability by playing in his school’s First XV rugby team.
As a 17 year old, Rob made the New Zealand junior rowing team. He was asked to try out for the national under-23 team, but declined as he was heading to Japan on a scholarship. In Japan, he learnt Japanese and gained a black belt in judo. Upon his return
to New Zealand, he completed an honours degree in management studies at Waikato University, while continuing to row competitively.
In 1993, Rob noticed he was having trouble with an irregular heartbeat. He didn’t stop rowing but didn’t want to let his team-mates down during a race. This led him to focus more on single sculling, although he still competed in team events.
This change of focus enabled Rob to win the New Zealand single sculls title in 1995. At 20, he was the youngest New Zealand champion ever. In 1996, he won six out of seven national titles. He qualified for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and finished seventh in the final. This was the beginning of an exciting rise through the ranks of world rowers. He won the Australian world single sculls title in 1997, then the world title in 1998 and 1999.
By the time the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games came around, Rob Waddell was under a lot of pressure as the clear favourite. He managed to stay calm as he won his heat and his semi-final. He then claimed the Gold Medal, finishing 1.5 seconds ahead of the Silver medallist. He was honoured to be New Zealand’s flag bearer in the Closing Ceremony at the Olympic Games. He also received his third consecutive Halberg Award – becoming the first person to win the Sportsperson of the Year award three years in a row.
Rob took a break from rowing after the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Looking for a new challenge, he took up yachting and was selected for Team New Zealand. He was a grinder in the unsuccessful America’s Cup defence in 2002–03, and again when Team New Zealand challenged in 2007. In 2003, this multi-talented sportsman was selected to play representative- level rugby for Waikato.
At the end of 2007, Rob returned to rowing with his eye on the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The national Olympic selectors struggled to choose between Rob Waddell and Mahe Drysdale, the reigning world champion in single sculls. The selectors held a three-race trial, which Drysdale won 2–1. Despite Rob’s heart condition flaring up during the trial, he still made it into the team in the coxless pair with Nathan Cohen. After finishing fourth at the Beijing Olympic Games, Rob retired from rowing.
Rob is married to Sonia Waddell, and they have three children. Sonia is also a talented athlete. She has represented New Zealand in athletics, rowing and cycling.
For more about Rob, see the Living the Olympic Values resource, available from http://www.olympic.org.nz/education/living-olympic-values
2008: Set new world records for indoor rowing – 5 min 36.6 sec over 2000m and 14 min 15 sec over 5000m (first person to break 15 minutes).
2001: Made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to rowing.
2000: Gold Medal at Sydney Olympic Games, single sculls.
1998, 2000: Winner of the Lonsdale Cup.
1998, 1999, 2000: Winner of the Halberg Award.
1998, 1999: World single sculls champion.
1995: Youngest winner of the New Zealand single sculls title.
1994: Bronze Medal at Ontario Commonwealth Games, coxless pairs with Ian Wright.