Wow, not a bad weekend to be a New Zealander right? First we had Hamish Bond and Eric Murray continue their amazing four year unbeaten streak, then Mahé Drysdale won the gold medal he so richly deserved four years earlier.
Back in 2010, when Open2view used to publish a flash magazine, we interviewed Mahé about that heroic effort in Beijing, his training techniques and much more. And after last Friday, we thought it’d be pertinent to reproduce it here for you all to see. Words by Helene Ravlich, and photos by Jason Tregurtha.
Well done to all our Olympic athletes. Call us greedy, but here’s hoping for even more success before the Games are over!
31 year old rowing champion Alexander Mahé Drysdale is one of our most loved athletes, and was the undisputed star of the Beijing Olympics after pushing through illness to compete – and place – in the Men’s Single Scull.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, he began rowing at university at the age of 18. He gave up rowing to concentrate on his studies, but began again after watching New Zealander Rob Waddell win gold at the 2000 Olympic Games.
The lanky athlete began competing at the World Cup level in 2002, rowing in the New Zealand coxless four. After the 2004 Olympic Games, in which his New Zealand crew finished fifth in the final, Drysdale switched to the single scull, winning the 2005 World Championships in Japan, despite having broken two vertebrae in a crash with a water skier earlier in the year.
Fast forward to the Beijing Olympics and Drysdale was once again competing against all odds, suffering a severe gastrointestinal infection in the week before his final that saw him off form and place third in the race. He was carried into a waiting ambulance, clearly suffering from his illness. The whole of New Zealand was behind the incredible competitor, and stood proud as he returned to the podium to collect his bronze.
We find out a little about what makes the athlete tick, talking to him after another long day out on the water.
Where are you living at the moment?
I’m in Cambridge at the moment, the whole New Zealand Rowing team is based here.
So where you live is determined by your training needs?
Yeah, I’ve been here for nine years now, and pretty much full time. I still consider Tauranga home, but at the moment I’d say I’m very much a Cambridge sort of person!
What are you working towards at the moment?
Obviously the big goal is the 2012 Olympics, but this year we’ve got the World Rowing Champs here in New Zealand so we’re fully focused on – and training towards – that at the moment.
For a non athlete, the thought of thinking as far ahead as 2012 just seems insane! Does that way of thinking just come naturally to you now?
It always seems like quite a long time when you first start thinking about it, but now we’re just two years away, which for an athlete is not a huge amount of time. It seems to go pretty quickly and it’s how I’ve always focused. Every year I think about the Olympics and work out what I have to achieve that year to get closer to the goal. I’ve always made commitments four years in advance as far back as I can remember, and when I came home from Beijing I wasn’t ready to row again until I’d made that four year commitment.
How much down time did you have following the Beijing Olympics?
It was about four months, Beijing was August and I didn’t seriously start rowing again until the middle of January. It took that much time for me to decide whether or not I’d go to London and work out if I was 100 per cent committed to going out and training again. You can’t do it half arsed, it has to be 100 per cent or not at all in this game. The break was for the best but at the time it was sort of a weird time for me because as an athlete with a four year goal, you know what you’re doing every day for the next four years, and suddenly I had nothing planned.
So you must find it hard to get out of training mode?
Absolutely, after the Olympics I realised that I didn’t know what has happening tomorrow or the day after, and that took some getting used to.
So what did you do?
I kept pretty busy. I was overseas for a while visiting family and doing a few races just for fun, I took care of a lot of sponsors’ commitments and speaking around the country. I still did a bit of training here and there, but took it at my own pace. It wasn’t like I was sitting at home the whole time!
Do you have a job outside training?
No, I’m a full time athlete now so that’s all I do, and it’s definitely improved for us in the last few years. When I first started in the sport there was not a cent available to live on, but now we’re fairly well funded thanks to the work of SPARC (Sport & Recreation New Zealand).
Is it a good or a bad thing do you think, the fact that in New Zealand athletes don’t get multi million dollar sponsorship deals like some overseas do? Do you think it keeps you humble?
Yes, I really think it does. I don’t know what it would be like to earn that much money, but I think that either way, if you want to succeed in sport you’ve got to be doing it for the right reasons. That’s one thing we’ve got in rowing, because you’re never going to be suddenly really rich you’re doing it because you love it. If I wasn’t paid a cent I’d be doing the same thing, but when it’s your time to leave the sport I guess it’s easier to walk away when you’re not motivated by money.
Would you recommend that young athletes travel overseas to train and compete, or do we have a solid programme they can go through in New Zealand now?
It really depends on your sport. In terms of rowing, what we have in New Zealand is World Class at the moment. If you have people ahead of you in your sport that are living in the same country as you are then it’s definitely not a bad thing to stay there, but if you’re the best in New Zealand in your sport then I think it’s a good idea to leave. If your competition is overseas you’ve got to get out there and train to be better than them. When I decided to change to Single Sculling I went overseas and sought out the best people I could find because we didn’t have anyone here I could really compare myself to. I didn’t want to just be the best in New Zealand but the best in the world, so I needed to track them down. Now in New Zealand the Single Scull is full of world champions, so we’ve achieved a lot.
You’ve worked through injury and illness to compete at the best of your ability – does that just come with the territory of being an athlete?
I think so, we’re prone to having illness and injury as it’s just part of competing at the level we do. I think it’s just a matter of going out there and giving it your best on the day, no matter how you’re feeling. You don’t get a second chance, you have to front up on the day.
So do you spend as much time training your mind for competition as you do your body?
The mind is a massive part of sport, mentally is often where the race is won and lost. You’ll be lined up against six individuals who are pretty similar to you physically, so your mind can give you that edge. I’m lucky that I’m a competitive person naturally, so I don’t have to try in that area as much as some people do.
You won the Halberg Award in 2006, how did that feel?
It was pretty cool, awards aren’t the reason I am in this sport but obviously it’s really nice to be recognised as the premier sports person in your country. It’s a pretty big honour.
Does it spur you on as an athlete, that you are being celebrated for your success by people all over the country?
Yeah, it definitely helps and reminds you take the time to reflect back on what you’ve achieved and to celebrate that success. After the Olympics I was blown away when I realised how many people were there behind me – having a support team of four million is pretty amazing. It breaks up the monotony of training when you’re at an awards dinner too, but the next morning you’re back out on the water and have swapped your penguin suit for lycra!
What do you do to relax?
I’m actually pretty good at it, I’m great at just chilling out. I take my dog to the beach, hang out with friends and play golf. You have to keep balance in your life. Rowing dictates it and controls it, so when you’re doing that you really appreciate time to yourself.