The 25-year-old farmer's son is oftendescribed as a machine, a phenomenon and a freak of nature. His size, muscle, attitude and unusually pain-resistant physiology make him formidable in a sport of iron-willed giants.
Bob Rout saw "the look" in Waddell before he blazed through his second consecutive world championship win last August, at St. Catharine's, Canada, setting a new world record of 6 min. 36.38 sec. over 2,000 m. "As soon as he picked up that boat and started walking down the pontoon, I could tell that no-one was going to touch him," says Rout, who built the special skiff Waddell hopes to race in the Olympic single sculls final on Sept. 23.
Waddell carries the hopes of a sports-mad nation on his shoulders. The only New Zealand athlete ever to be named Sportsman of the Year twice-in 1998 and 1999-he provided a powerful antidote to national gloom last year when his world championship victory coincided with the All Blacks' loss in the Rugby World Cup.
A man of few words, he represents "what New Zealanders perceive our heroes to have been in an age gone by," says Dave Currie, executive director of the Halberg Trust, which administers the Sportsman of the Year award. "That is, simply getting out there and doing it, not making excuses, being a quiet achiever."
Waddell is a reluctant hero. Rather than train at Lake Karapiro, near his home town of Cambridge, in preparation for the Games, he went to Belgium-courtesy of New Zealand's first elite Olympic training scheme-before moving to the Hinze Dam, near Surfers Paradise, Queensland. Shunning distractions with the help of his reclusive coach, Dick Tonks, Waddell trains with his wife, Sonia, who is also a single sculler. If both get to the finals, they could make Olympic history by winning medals in the same events on the same day.
Things could have been so different. The first time Waddell took to the water, he "couldn't row to save himself," says Gordon Trevett of the 13-year-old he coached at Auckland's elite boys' school, King's College. "He was like a new-born foal: all arms and legs-mainly legs-and no coordination."
Others wanted the gangly kid to take up swimming or tennis, but Trevett detected even then an "obsessive commitment" that bordered on the robotic. "He was totally determined to achieve whatever challenge was set for him. He would over-try, if anything," Trevett recalls. Challenged to row 1,800 m in 6 min. on an indoor rowing machine to make the school's top team, Waddell took the ergometer back home to the farm for the holidays. "Every day, according to his mother, he was grinding away," says Trevett, who was stunned when Waddell churned through 1,822 m in the allotted time. "No one had worked so hard." At age 15, Waddell had an assured future in rowing. The ergometer was to remain part of his life: he has been three times the world indoor rowing champion.
But there was a problem. In the heart of this "perfect rowing machine" was a faulty valve. Sometimes, while rowing, Waddell's pulse would race to more than 300 beats a minute. When the atrial fibrillation occurred, it was "like rowing through porridge," Waddell said. By 18, the young man nicknamed "God" at the Waikato Rowing Club decided to withdraw from team rowing.
His only option was to test himself in the oarsman's ultimate proving ground: single sculls. "I've been around rowers all my life, and there was an X factor there," recalls Gary Reid, a former national champion single sculler to whom Waddell turned for advice. "He could produce a phenomenal amount of force."
With his heart condition controlled by medication, Waddell learned that his body absorbed more oxygen and produced less lactic acid (which forms when muscles tire) than those of most of his rivals. In a 2,000-m race that is a sprint from start to finish, Waddell has a genetic edge for the agonizing final 500 m.
Not that he is immune to the effects of mental and physical punishment. "Every day is a day of pain," Waddell says, and every training session "another grain of sand in the hourglass." He is determined that it will pay off against an unusually strong Olympic field. "Sculling used to be more of a duel," says Chris Dodd, editor of the British rowing journal Regatta. Now there are five or six fighting it out for the finals.
Asked on New Zealand television what would happen if he was off form on race day, Waddell gave a flash of the supreme self-assurance that marks him out. "There won't be a bad day," he said evenly. "It'll be a good day."