Mahe Drysdale on the way to another Henley Championship
Somewhere during the first part of the 2018 Diamond Challenge Sculls, Mahe Drysdale thought he was about to hit another snag in his campaign to regain his position as the New Zealand national team single sculler.
Kjetil Borch, a much younger sculler from Norway, was leading the race, the heat was unrelenting, and for one of a very the few times in his storied career, Drysdale was considered an underdog to win.
It didn't help that his comeback after a year off following his second consecutive Olympic Championship, and a fight to the last stroke in Rio to the gold, has been a struggle. At 40, Drysdale is finding it difficult to recover from race to race, and with Borch in front of him, he thought for a second that it was not going to succeed in winning - not the New Zealand single men's seat, not the race he was currently in, or the quest to tie the record of 6 Henley singles championships a win Sunday would accomplish.
"I guess about half way through the race I thought I was gone," Drysdale said.
Instead, Drysdale drew into the knowledge that he had raced here many times before and knew how to race the course. "I just had to stick in there; it's a long course and I know this water well, and soon as I hit the enclosures and I heard the cheers, I knew I must be gaining."
Somewhere in front of the Enclosure, boosted by the cheering fans, Drysdale looked over his shoulder to see where Borch was and rated up to 38 strokes a minute. Drysdale knows how to sprint, and he knows it.
As he began to gain, the cheering beside him increased and Drysdale passed Borch and closed on the finish line. "It was just about putting your head down and doing your best," Drysdale said on the recovery dock just a few minutes after the race ended.
"At the end of the day you can only go as fast as you can and, thankfully, that was faster today."
For Drysdale, there is a lot of meaning in winning this particular race. It was his sixth Henley Royal Regatta Diamond Sculls victory, and it tied the record set by Australian Stuart Mackenzie over six consecutive years, between 1957 and 1962.
Mahe Drysdale on the recovery dock at Henley
The accomplishment was not lost on Drysdale, but the time to reflect on that accomplish is not now. This Henley title is more about making his way back to the New Zealand national team and retaking the seat from Robbie Mason.
Drysdale has been clear since he took his post-Rio time off that he intended to come back and row in the 2020 Games in Tokyo. His trophy case is full and includes two Olympic gold medals in the men's single - and the five Henley titles, now six.
This race will take its rightful place on the mantle of his New Zealand home sometime in the future. For today, for this year, there are bigger goals to finish, including winning World Rowing Cup III in Lucerne next week and then getting to the line in the 2018 World Rowing Championships. Manson is not about to hand over his position. He earned it and has continued to earn the right to keep it by beating Drysdale in competition.
The two were headed to a recent international showdown at World Rowing Cup II until Drysdale pulled out for health concerns. He was battling a cold.
His challenges in getting back to form have been many, and the most recent was an on-water accident, where his single was snapped in two.
At Henley, Drysdale seemed to relax. He could be found walking to the course for practice, and stopping to chat with people and well-wishers on the street.
He will leave Henley for Lucerne in an even better mood and with a renewed confidence.
"I came here in 2016 as the big favorite and didn't pull it off, and I came here as the underdog this time, and pulled one out of the hat. So it's a really good step forward. It's my most complete race so far and it gives me hope that in a week's time I can do what's required and get across the line in Lucerne."
"The questioning of my age is not a problem," he said. "I know in my own mind what I'm capable of but, yea, it's been bloody tough. At this age, you don't recover as quickly. It's hard work and I've had a lot of setbacks.
"It's taken a lot longer than I had hoped and I've been back for a year and one week now and I still haven't found my base form. But to win a race like that, maybe slightly undercooked, gives me a huge amount of hope and confidence for the next couple of years.
"Henley is a hugely historic regatta, and to be only the second person ever to win six titles is incredibly special. At the end of the day, I have bigger goals this year and for the next few years, for the race next week and obviously, the Olympics in 2020.
"But I guess when I look back on my career, I would certainly reflect fondly on all these Henley races."