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Mahe Drysdale’s emotional farewell from professional rowing

After retiring from rowing, the sports hero reveals the next chapter for his beautiful clan
amybellphotography.co.nz, Phil Walter/Getty Images

Throughout his long career, Kiwi rowing legend Mahé Drysdale has never had what you’d call an easy run of it. There was the time he rowed to a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics while battling a severe stomach virus, collapsing at the finish line and having to be carried to the medal ceremony.

Or the time in 2005 when he was hit by a water-skier during a training run and broke two vertebrae – but still won the World Championships that year. Or the time when he was hit by a car while out on his bike a few months before the London Games, where he won his first of two Olympic gold medals.

He’s one of New Zealand’s favourite sons, the epitome of the humble Kiwi hero, and while his name will live on in the history books as one of our most successful athletes, there’s a new title beckoning that he’s looking forward to claiming – stay-at-home dad.

Mahé just hopes he can keep up with his energetic family and dog Oslo!

“Primary carer, that’s me,” Mahé, 42, tells Woman’s Day with a smile as he talks through his decision to retire from professional rowing. “It’s a bit of a change, but I’m looking forward to it!”

His kids, Bronte, six, Boston, four, and almost-two-year-old Frankie are also excited about having him around their Cambridge home a lot more, as is his wife, fellow rower and Olympic bronze medallist Juliette, 39.

But Mahé admits hanging up his paddle was emotional after missing selection for the last Olympics. “I knew that I was going to retire this year, but I thought it would have been on the first of August, after Tokyo,” he confesses. “I had to prove myself to get to that point and I didn’t.”

Shrugging pragmatically, he continues, “So in that sense, it was a pretty easy decision because it was my time and I felt that when I walked away, I left everything out there. I was pretty proud of where

I got back to, but ultimately I wasn’t good enough.”

While he was able to let go of his dream to represent New Zealand at an Olympic Games for a final time, the hardest part of retiring was telling his fellow rowers, who have become family over his long career.

“I lasted about two words into my speech and burst into tears,” he says, laughing. “I was a mess for the next 15 minutes as I tried to say what I wanted to say. It was grief, I guess. Leaving the team was bigger than not going to the Olympics. But as we were leaving the building afterwards, Juliette turned to me asked me if I was OK and I was – I was great.”

Juliette, who retired from international rowing herself in 2012, adds that it was a “bit of a rollercoaster”. But she tells, “I was also really proud of the way Mahé finished his career, and that he stayed true to himself and finished on his own terms. It’s been a massive journey, especially in this last year with COVID-19 and Mahé injuring his back too. There were quite a few months where we weren’t sure if he was going to continue rowing or retire earlier. We were on tenterhooks as a family!”

Making the call to retire has also made him reflect on his stellar career that’s brought him three Olympic medals, eight World Championship titles, five Sportsman of the Year prizes and a Halberg Supreme Award. But it’s not the bulging trophy cabinet that’s been the best reward.

“I never took into account the journey that got me to this point until now – the great friends this sport has given me,” he nods. “The messages from them were really emotional. It’s so much more than a few Olympic medals.”

He’s good as gold about being stay-at-home dad to his kids (from left) Boston, Frankie and Bronte.

But while Mahé’s now finished wearing the fern, that certainly doesn’t mean he’ll be staying out of the water. Rowing is everything to both Mahé and Juliette – it’s how they met and fell in love, it’s what they’ve based their lives around and it’s a love they hope to impart on their kids.

Mahé chuckles, “On the same day I retired, Juliette took up the reins again – she’s now a masters rower and will be competing at nationals in September. She’s the rower in the family now!”

“I’d like to point out it’s masters nationals,” she says quickly, laughing with her husband. “I just love rowing. I have to say – and Mahé knew this – that I was waiting for my turn. It was a loaded question when I asked when he was retiring! I’m looking forward to competing again.”

Along with supporting Juliette on the water and caring for the kids, Mahé’s also eager for a bit of downtime while he figures out the next steps.

“It’s pretty exciting starting a post-rowing life with the family,” he tells. “Juliette’s given me a long list of thingsto do around the house, so I’ll start with that! Then I’ll take three or four months to make some career decisions – whatever it is, it’ll have to work in with the family and we have decided to stay in Cambridge.

“The sport has given me great friends,” says Mahé, pictured with 2012 Kiwi rowing medallists (from left) Storm Uru, Joe Sullivan, Nathan Cohen, Juliette, Rebecca Scown, Hamish Bond, Eric Murray and Peter Taylor in London.

“I’m investigating some options – I’m going out and just doing some stuff. I’m planning on milking some cows and working as an apprentice electrician, trying things that I’ve never had the opportunity to try.”

But for the past few weeks, Mahé’s been firmly on the couch, watching his mates compete in Tokyo, an experience he describes as amazing but “very strange”.

“I’ve never seen more of an Olympics!” he says. “But watching the rowing was tough. Knowing that I could still have been there… It’s the competitiveness, I guess. It was a little bit hard.

“I don’t regret my decision at all, but I always knew that it was going to be a tough watch. It was amazing to see the whole team do so well and it was extra-special to see Emma Twigg come away with a gold in her fourth Olympics. It was the highlight of my week and I was just so proud of her.”

Now the Games are over, Mahé has turned his attention to Bronte, Boston and Frankie, all of whom love the outdoors and the water.

“They’re all very different,” shares Juliette, who also runs her own photography business. “Bronte’s like a little mother hen – she’s very responsible, caring and studious. Boston is super-affectionate but also a ball of energy. And little Frankie is just starting to talk and wants to be included in every single thing that’s going on.

“So there’s a lot of playing outside and keeping them busy with things like bike rides and helping us with jobs. We’ve even done a little bit of kayaking – we haven’t quite got up to rowing yet. I mean, you don’t want to push these things too hard, but we’ll see what happens. Life with the three of them is never boring!”

‘It’s been an awesome journey. I hope I’ve made you proud’

Mahé adds, “I’m incredibly lucky to have such a supportive wife and family, and for everyone else who’s had a part in helping me throughout my career. Juliette’s parents have also been an amazing support – it’s because of them that I felt like I could be away, training and racing, and know that Juliette was supported at home.”

And there’s one more group of people who Mahé would like to thank for their support – the people of New Zealand.

“It’s been an awesome journey and I’ve always felt very lucky to have the support of the country behind me,” he says. “I hope I’ve made you proud because I couldn’t have done it without your support. Thank you.”

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