Rob Waddell - A Hero with a Giant Heart
Friday, June 6, 2014
Rob Waddell’s accomplishments in world sport are best described as Herculean - reaching the pinnacle of not one, but two very demanding sporting codes.
A world and Olympic rowing champion, Waddell has also been one of the tough men of Kiwi yachting – grinding for Team New Zealand in two Louis Vuitton Cup victories and three America’s Cup matches. And he did it all with a troublesome heart.
Growing up on a farm in the King Country, Rob Waddell had a passion for rugby. But when he became a boarder at King’s College in Auckland, he was introduced to rowing. He soon worked his way into the school’s top rowing eight.
At 17, he made the New Zealand junior rowing team, but the sport took a back seat while he went on a 10-month scholarship to Japan – where he learned judo and reached black belt status.
While studying for an honours degree in management at Waikato University, Waddell made large strides in rowing. When he discovered he had an irregular heartbeat, he decided not to quit, but to pursue single sculling so he didn't let his team-mates down.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he finished seventh, which made him hungrier for Olympic success. In his build-up to the 2000 Sydney games, he won successive world championship titles in Germany and Canada.
In Sydney, Waddell won both his heat and semi-final in fine style. In the Olympic final, he decisively beat the world’s best single scullers by 1.5s, earning him the honour of carrying the New Zealand flag at the closing ceremony.
Waddell became the first person to win New Zealand sport’s top honour - the Halberg Supreme Award – three times. He was also made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 for his services to rowing.
Wanting a new challenge – and to give his heart a rest – Waddell changed codes, and became a burly grinder on Dean Barker’s Team New Zealand crew in the 2003 America’s Cup defence. He played two important roles in Emirates Team New Zealand’s 2007 challenge – as grinder and boat captain of the team that won the Louis Vuitton Cup and contested the America’s Cup final.
His passion for rowing had not been extinguished, so 33-year-old Waddell fixed his sights on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Missing out on New Zealand’s single sculls spot to world champion Mahe Drysdale, he teamed up with Nathan Cohen in the coxless pair. They narrowly missed out on a medal, finishing fourth in the final.
The return to rowing brought back his heart problem, and he underwent surgery in 2009 to correct it.
When he was well again, Waddell revived his sailing career, and was part of the Emirates Team New Zealand crew who again won the Louis Vuitton Cup, this time off San Francisco in 2013. But the team fell short in their bid to wrest the holy grail of yachting, the America’s Cup, off Sir Russell Coutts’ Oracle Racing.
Today, Waddell and his wife Sonia, a three-time Olympic rower, raise three children on their horse farm in the Waikato.
He is also Chef de Mission for the New Zealand team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.