Rowing: Kiwi Olympic great Mahé Drysdale reflects on career after announcing retirement

After 21 illustrious years of rowing and two Olympic gold medals, the final goodbye proved the most difficult act for Mahé Drysdale.

One of New Zealand’s most decorated Olympians, Drysdale called time on Thursday aged 42 after missing selection for next month’s Tokyo Olympics to 25-year-old Jordan Parry in the single sculls.

While the decision itself came to something of a natural conclusion, with no lingering disappointment or sadness, Drysdale’s farewell speech to fellow rowers and coaches stirred overwhelming emotions.

“That was the hardest thing I’ve done,” Drysdale told Newstalk ZB. “It makes me emotional just thinking about that. The hard part was knowing how many of those people have helped my journey. Leaving the team that’s been so incredibly special to me is the really tough thing. I’ve become part of the furniture.

“It really came down to this year I knew what it would take to get to the Olympics after not being selected in March.

“I didn’t ultimately give the selectors a reason to select me over Jordan and it was time to walk away.”

Reflecting on a legacy that includes gold in London 2012 and Rio 2016, a memorable bronze in Beijing 2008 when ill, five world championship titles and the supreme Halberg award in 2006, Drysdale savoured his many contrasting highs and lows.

“The results and success they are all fantastic. I’m very proud of everything I’ve achieved but it really comes down to the people that have helped me on this journey; the lessons I’ve learnt and how it has shaped me as a person. That’s what is really special to me.

“I’m very fortunate I’ve done something that I absolutely love. I don’t think many people get that opportunity for 20 odd years to enjoy every single day of what they do by following their passion, representing their country and wearing the silver fern. That is the special part.”

Drysdale began rowing for Auckland University out of West End Rowing Club in 1996 at the age of 18 but then took a break from the sport. Watching the Sydney 2000 Olympics, weighing 116kg at the time, inspired his return to the water.

“I was pretty out of shape and that was the reason I got back into rowing. Three months later, I was selected in the development team and it all went from there.”

Drysdale first represented New Zealand in 2002 and competed at his first Olympics in Athens 2004, finishing fifth in the men’s coxless four.

In 2005 Drysdale moved to the single sculls where he dominated to unprecedented levels for the next 12 years spanning three Olympic Games.

“There’s been some really tough times and days where you don’t know how you’re going to survive but ultimately those are all worthwhile when you do get that success and it teaches you so much about yourself and what you’re capable of.

“Beijing is bittersweet for me still. Ultimately, I failed to achieve my goal which was a gold medal but I’m immensely proud – that was the hardest I’ve ever pushed myself in any race throughout my whole career. I’ve never been that bad; I was out of gas with 100 metres to go and, somehow, I don’t even remember crossing the finish line.”

To claim gold in London, Drysdale had to overcome a serious bike crash six weeks before the Games. He didn’t row for three weeks but used lessons from Beijing to spur his push for supremacy.

“Once I did that in London everything since has been a bonus. Rio was very much a bonus. I was very confident sitting on that start line thinking ‘I’m the only one in this field who knows how to win this Olympic gold medal’ and to execute that it was pretty special, even it was by five one thousandths of a second.”

Life is set to take a very different turn now. Cambridge-based Drysdale has committed to spending the next few months enjoying time with his three children while he contemplates where to next.

“It’s been very easy to get out of bed every morning because I’ve been doing what I love and I need to find something else that’s going to replace that and make me be excited for the day ahead.”

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