The epic poem unfurling in New Zealand added another magnificent verse today when 2000 Olympic gold medalist Rob Waddell, on the brink of elimination, powered to victory over three-time world champion Mahe Drysdale in a battle for their nation's lone single sculls berth in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (see previous Indie Sport posts, Heart Of A Champion, Knockout, and Singled Out). Waddell's win at the Olympic trials evens the best-of-three series at one victory apiece, setting up a dramatic showdown tomorrow on Lake Karapiro (click here for a video link).
The race today, contested on a rippled surface, was a white knuckle affair of ebb and flow with the combatants never separated by more than a length. Drysdale, who had beaten Waddell by a length-and-a-half yesterday in Round One, nosed ahead around the 1000 meter mark. But Waddell would not let him go, setting up a final, desperate drive to the finish, in which he surged ahead for good with only a few hundred meters remaining to win by half a length.
The two oarsmen, the best in the world, have now traded victories in each of their last four races. Regardless of the margin of victory or the desperation of circumstance, each has come off the canvas to impose his will on the other. The supreme mental toughness and athleticism of these champions cannot be overstated. For the past several weeks they have been locked in an unrelenting, grueling war of attrition that comes down to one final battle tomorrow.
Should the race be close, the winner will not necessarily seal the deal, for the ultimate fate of the oarsmen lies in the hands of New Zealand's selection committee, who will announce their Olympic rowing team next Friday. The decision will be heartbreaking to one, exhilirating to the other. But what we will remember most is not who won or lost, but the courage and honor two unyielding athletes brought to their sport in a contest that is already legendary.