by Michael Otto
It is sometimes said that humour and commonsense are the same thing moving at different speeds.
The combination, balanced at the right level, is usually a winning one.
That was proven in an address by Olympic gold medallist and Team New Zealand America’s Cup sailor Rob Waddell, ONZM, at a De Paul House fundraising breakfast.
Speaking at the Spencer on Byron Hotel in Takapuna on September 17, Waddell amused, charmed
and fascinated his audience with well-pitched words.
Keen observations of what it takes to succeed in elite sport, interspersed with bouts of humour, brought sustained rounds of applause and laughter.
Waddell started by saying that different sports have different psychologies. Rowing is about focusing on your own boat, sailing is about anticipation and rugby is about aggression, he said.
Waddell said that his high point of measurable success was winning a gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
He said he didn’t think about that too often. “But it is true what they say — the older you get, the better you were. I’m guilty of that.”
But a key tactic in his success was simplification.
“[It was] isolating it down to its most basic, simple thing that mattered, which is making a boat go fast.
“I think too often in life, we get caught up in the variables and all the different things, all the external factors.
“That day, one thing mattered. Making the boat go fast.”
But from being on top of the world, Waddell was brought down to Earth by Kiwi kids. He said nearly every schoolchild in the country sent him a fax after the win.
“Most of the faxes were drawings of stick figures and sharks. We had a couple of crocodiles. One kid even drew a picture of a boat breaking in half. He was years ahead of his time.”
Another child wished him well, but said his favourite sport was basketball. Waddell said kids
cut you down to size. One example he cited was when one of his daughters suggested naming a
new, young, athletic ram on the family farm near Cambridge after Waddell’s great sculling rival
But, turning serious again, Waddell described in some detail the perils of sailing on the flying catamarans in the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco.
“Being on these boats, you were doing 50 knots and, if they flipped, you were 14 metres
up in the air, or even higher.
“So there was a whole evolution of safety and process and logistics that had to work around
Waddell said the best way to describe what these boats are like to sail on “is to actually talk
about the gear you had to wear to sail on them”.
There were helmets with sophisticated radio systems, as the wind at 50 knots was so strong,
a person on the boat could not hear the person next to them speaking.
“We had panic knives strapped to your body so if you flipped and were caught underneath you could cut your way out. People have drowned on multi-hulls before.
“We had oxygen tanks strapped to our backs, so if you were caught under the water, you could actually have extra time.”
They were also fitted with abseiling devices so, if caught up in the air, sailors could get down.
“Knee pads, special shoes, body armour, the list goes on. Even just getting dressed was
quite an exercise.
“It felt like once you had the gear on, all you were missing was a machine gun,” Waddell noted.
He described just how terrifying it was to be washed overboard on one of those flying machines.
Of course, Team New Zealand came close to winning the Cup, but went down to Oracle.
“My perspective, and I know it is shared by others, is that there was a critical moment
about a month before the America’s Cup, where Oracle released a system to the jury that they had been working on for about a year, which enabled them to control their foils better than we could.
“We disagreed with that, we protested, I understand we still disagree with that decision. Whatever the case, that is history and they were allowed to use that.
“They did some pretty smart things and they got there just in time. Quite simply . . . they learned how to sail their boat and how to use it.”
He looks back on the campaign with mixed emotions.
As with everyone on Team New Zealand, he was gutted to lose. But he was also proud that his team could showcase New Zealand “technology, innovation and integrity to a really high level internationally”.
Now Waddell has moved on to a new administrative role as Chef de Mission for New Zealand’s Olympic and Commonwealth Games teams. He had just returned from a successful games in Glasgow for New Zealand.
“I felt well acclimatised coming back from a Scottish summer to a New Zealand winter —they are about the same temperature,” he said. Of the tales about his Games experience, one was
especially poignant. This was the first games in which para-sports competitions took place alongside the usual ones.
“It was great to see para-sports in Glasgow,” Waddell said. “It was great to see them recognised as the great athletes they are.
“I think it provided wonderful perspective for many of the people in the team. As an athlete, you get very nervous beforehand — your world can get a bit small.
“But then you see what some of these people had to overcome to even be there. I think it helped the team have an understanding of that.”
One outstanding example he showcased was a British lawn bowls para-athlete who had no arms. This man used a device on his foot to propel the bowl. But he still won bronze.
Waddell observed that in all his sports playing and administration experience, some common themes emerge. “I think work ethic is number one. It is the backbone of any success I have been
involved with or witnessed.
“I think commitment to quality is really important. We are what we do repeatedly.
“Attitude is right up there. Whether you think you are going to achieve something or not, you are probably right.
“Leadership, I think leadership in sport, especially, I gave you the example of sailing, you have always got to be thinking, what is going to happen next and what am I going to do about it?
“The general rule is that if you have to be told to do something, it is too late.
“Teamwork has always been a pretty big aspect too, no matter what team you are part of.
“The last point I will mention is passion. Finding out what you enjoy doing in life and what you are good at. And if you can do it in a way that helps other people, it is a wonderful achievement.”
Waddell expressed his admiration for the work done by De Paul House, in providing emergency housing and family support.
“It is a wonderful cause, it does some great work in the community, and obviously there are
some special people in the room who help make that happen every year.”
But he finished with an anecdote that resonated with his audience.
“We are all guilty of getting a bit caught up in our own world sometimes,” he said. “And I
was given some perspective the other day, I was reminded of my own insignificance.
“I had to catch a taxi out to the airport in Auckland, and the taxi driver came along and picked me up and he looked at me with this classic look of recognition, like ‘Oh, I know your face, but I don’t know your name’.
“We drove out to the airport, and he kept looking in his rear vision mirror.
“I didn’t say anything. We got out there and he said, ‘Come on mate, can you give me a clue’?
“I’ll be honest with the guy. I said: ‘My name’s Rob Waddell, I’ve been part of Team New Zealand, the America’s Cup, you might have seen me recently on the catamarans in San Francisco.’
“He said, ‘No, I just want to know if you are international or domestic’.”