This is not the way it was supposed to go down. No, the winner-take-all race between the world's two greatest oarsmen for New Zealand's lone Olympic berth in the single sculls was supposed to be like every other desperately contested battle these past few weeks-- a brilliant, titanic culmination of the unofficial World Series of Rowing between three-time world champion Mahe Drysdale and his fellow countryman, 2000 Olympic gold medalist Rob Waddell (see previous Indie Sport posts, Kiwi Magic, Heart Of A Champion, Knockout, and Singled Out).
But nature, which is so often wondrous, as exemplified in the spectacular display of athleticism and character that Drysdale and Waddell have given us again and again the past two months, showed how capricious it can be today when Waddell was cruelly struck down by an acute attack of atrium fibrillation 300 meters into the race. Waddell's medical condition, which can lead to a heart attack and cause episodes of pain, a loss of up to 25 percent of cardiac efficiency, accelerated heartbeat, and-- for an athlete, especially-- debilitating reductions in energy, was first diagnosed in 1997. He received appropriate treatment for the disorder and has been functioning at full capacity the past two years without medication. Thus, his attack came as a complete surprise.
"You think is it happening, is it not happening? There's always a sort of moment of confusion. I tried to settle the rating down a bit but unfortunately it just persisted," said Waddell, whose heartbeat accelerated "in excess of 200 beats per minute."
"The simple feeling is you're like rowing in mud. There's nothing you can do about it-- it's just the way it is."
The onset of Waddell's attack was readily apparent in the video coverage of the race. With 300 meters gone and the two boats essentially even, Waddell suddenly fell off the pace and Drysdale surged ahead, amassing a huge lead that defied logic, given the history of their superb series, in which the two champions have traded hard fought victories.
"I knew there was something amiss, he's too good to let you do that, " said Drysdale. "It's a shame it happened. He's an awesome competitor and what he's done this summer has been absolutely amazing . . . I've never had racing in the last three years where you've just battled it out the whole way down the course."
In the end, the result was academic as Drysdale crossed the line a staggering 25 seconds ahead of Waddell, who showed the world what he is made of by bravely rowing out the course in agony. With his health now in question, the issue of whether or not Waddell will challenge for an Olympic spot in New Zealand's double sculls, pair, or four is up in the air. He may yet opt for corrective surgery.
As for Drysdale, it is hard to find sufficient superlatives to describe what he has accomplished. He was effectively ambushed by Waddell's comeback from retirement, forcing him to scuttle his well laid training plans, which were predicated on what otherwise would have been his inevitable selection as New Zealand's single sculls entry at Beijing. Instead he was forced to abruptly gear up for a death match against an oarsman who is considered by many to be the best in the world. Drysdale retooled brilliantly and fought back from repeated, demoralizing defeats at the hands of Waddell to claim victory when many believed he could not.
In the end we have been treated to a competition so fine that we may never see another like it for years to come, if ever. This was sport at its pinnacle, contested by men whose courage and skill are nothing less than exquisite.