Indie Sport

When a driver qualifies a race car for the Indy 500 it's the vehicle that's made the grade, not the driver. An owner is free to replace the driver with better or different talent, should he choose.

When it comes to the Olympics, the sport of rowing operates on the same premise.

Last year oarsmen Nathan Cohen and Matthew Trott qualified New Zealand's double sculls for Beijing when they finished 6th at the World Championships in Munich. It was a dream come true for Trott, who had put in years of hard work to achieve this position, including the last three seasons as a member of New Zealand's national team.

But in the Darwinian world of elite rowing, no seat is safe, as Trott knew and had affirmed this week when he was unceremoniously unseated from his berth in the double by Rob Waddell, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist in the single sculls.

Waddell is a spectacular athlete, whose epic battle with countryman and three-time world champion Mahe Drysdale for New Zealand's lone berth in the single at Beijing ended tragically, as chronicled in a series of posts by Indie Sport (see previous Indie Sport posts Broken Hearted, Kiwi Magic, Heart Of A Champion, Knockout, and Singled Out.)

Waddell's bid for the single came to a sudden halt in the final winner-take-all Olympic qualifying race against Drysdale when he suffered an attack of atrial fibrillation 300 meters into the event. His heart condition was nothing new, for he'd won his gold medal in Sydney while taking high doses of medication to correct the ailment. Nevertheless, it was a surprise when the problem resurfaced after having been under control for years.

"I hadn't been on medication for three years and was thinking the problem was dormant, but unfortunately it came out in a very public way," said Waddell, who came out of retirement only seven months ago. Now he has has resumed taking medication and insists his heart is no longer a problem. Apparently Rowing New Zealand's Olympic selectors agree.

"The nomination process was robust, transparent, and fair," said New Zealand Olympic Committee secretary general Barry Maister. Others disagree, claiming Waddell was given preferential treatment, tried to dictate who would coach the double, and insisted his wife and three children accompany him to the Games in Beijing.

Waddell's media adviser, Glenda Hughes, refuted the charges, stating, "He has not demanded any terms and conditions."

Nevertheless, a coaching change has been made for the double sculls in the wake of Waddell's selection, as Chris Nilsson, the former mentor of the the world champion four, has been brought in to handle the Waddell-Cohen tandem.

Waddell maintains that all he has wanted is "a program put into place to ensure we [have] the very best chance in Beijing . . . It has been ongoing with Rowing New Zealand and it has been part of the process and we have come out with a package we are comfortable with," he said.

The "we" Waddell spoke of does not include Trott, who was spoken to at great length by Rowing New Zealand high performance director Andrew Matheson.

"Obviously for anyone missing out on his dream of competing at the Olympics, it is pretty devastating," said Matheson. "But he is still a very, very important member of our team-- he's going to act as our spare throughout the Olympics program covering all our top boats."

The hard edges of sport cut two ways, as both Rob Waddell and Matthew Trott have discovered the past year. It is hard not to cheer for Waddell and his heroic comeback, which will afford the world an opportunity to see one of its brilliant athletes in action against the very best. But it is equally hard not to empathize with Trott, a man standing in the shadow of greatness who must continue to sacrifice for what may never come.

Indie Sport


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