Biography

Mahe Drysdale put the fullstop on a magnificent career by winning the single sculls at the 2012 London Olympics. With five world titles plus an Olympic bronze, the 1.99m Drysdale was already a giant of his sport, literally and figuratively. All he needed was to complete the unfinished business of winning an Olympic gold medal. He did that emphatically in 2012. Drysdale, approaching 34 by the time of the London Olympics, stamped his class on the field immediately, winning his heat by more than 10 seconds. He was equally impressive in his quarter-final, winning by two seconds though he did not seem at full stretch. Into the semis he turned up the heat, winning from Lassi Karonen of Sweden in 7min 18.11s. New Zealanders desperately hoped Drysdale would prevail in the final, which would right an injustice from the previous Olympics, but his major rival, Ondrej Synek of the Czech Republic, looked formidable. On the morning of the final, Drysdale was uncharacteristically nervous. Despite his stellar record and vast experience, he knew how much was at stake. But he rowed beautifully in the final and won in 6min 57.82s. He beat Synek by 1½ seconds and third-placed Briton Alan Campbell by 5½ seconds. It’s doubtful if there was a more popular winner in the New Zealand Olympic team in London than Drysdale. His victory came half an hour after Eric Murray and Hamish Bond claimed gold in the men’s pair and signalled a gala day for New Zealand at the Eton Dorney course. New Zealand has a proud tradition in single sculling, right back to the 19th century, when Billy Webb won the world professional title. Dick Arnst and Darcy Hadfield won that crown over the next couple of decades. More recently, Don Rowlands (in the 1950s), Murray Watkinson (in the 1960s and 70s), Eric Verdonk (an Olympic bronze medallist in 1988) and Rob Waddell have been tremendous single scullers. On the women’s side, Stephanie Foster, Phillippa Baker (a lightweight world champion), Brenda Lawson and Emma Twigg have all been outstanding. Drysdale’s record tops any of them. Though he was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1978, Drysdale grew up in Tauranga, attending Tauranga Boys’ College. He took up rowing at 18 after having previously favoured canoe polo, at which he represented New Zealand. He was inspired by Waddell’s heroics at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and began rowing while studying at Auckland University. Quickly Drysdale’s ability shone through. He had height, strength and a lovely rhythm in his rowing. By 2002 he was representing New Zealand at World Cup level in the coxless four. At the 2004 Athens Olympics Drysdale’s coxless four, which also included Donald Leach, Carl Meyer and Eric Murray, finished fifth. From then, Drysdale turned to the single sculls - with fantastic results. Drysdale, world champion in 2005 (despite having broken two vertebrae in a crash with a water skier earlier in the year), 06 and 07, was a raging favourite going into the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet he had had quite a battle even securing the single sculls berth for New Zealand for the Olympics. Waddell made a comeback to rowing after eight years and pushed Drysdale hard for the single sculls spot in a series of trials. However, Drysdale emerged on top and was probably all the better off for the stiff competition. Drysdale was a popular choice in Beijing as the New Zealand team captain and flag-bearer at the opening ceremony. He had performance and personality going for him. However, during a long, steamy Beijing evening the opening ceremony seemed interminable. By the time Drysdale got back to the Olympic village – he did not return to rowing headquarters that evening because it was too far away and it was too late – he had lost a lot of weight through constant sweating and, worse, had picked up a stomach bug. The single sculls competition began first thing the next morning and Drysdale was far below his best. He tried all week to shake off his illness, but even in the final was far from 100 per cent. He barely made the final, finishing third in his semi-final behind Synek and Campbell. In the final he clawed his way to a bronze medal, but could not match Norwegian Olaf Tufte or Synek. Immediately after the final he began vomiting and needed medical treatment. Missing the gold when he had been the world’s dominant single sculler for so long was shattering, but Drysdale was soon back on top of the world again. He retained his world title at Pozdan, Poland, in 2009 (beating his own world best time in the single sculls with 6min 33.35s)[, suffered a setback when Synek beat him to the world crown on his home waters at Lake Karapiro in 2010 and regained his world title in Bled, Slovenia, in 2011. All eyes were on London 2012. Drysdale didn’t have the easiest of build-ups, having a cycling crash in training and having to manage an ongoing back problem. But he put it all behind him with his outstanding performance in London. Drysdale, who competes for Auckland’s West End rowing club, has branched out into other sports since the Olympics, competing in the Coast to Coast event and taking on the challenge of the Ironman. He did compete for New Zealand at the 2013 world championships in Chungju, South Korea, but failed to reach the semi-finals. His preparation was dealt a severe blow when he collided with a truck while training in Korea shortly before the championships. Drysdale has won numerous awards during his long career. In 2009 he was the International Rowing Federation’s male Rower of the Year. He won the Halberg supreme award in 2006 and was Sportsman of the Year in 2006, 07, 09 and 12. He was awarded the Lonsdale Cup by the New Zealand Olympic Committee in 2009. Drysdale was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2009 New Year honours. In 2013 he married fellow world champion and Olympic medallist Juliette Haigh.

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