Tokyo Olympics: Rowing champion Mahe Drysdale may not face rivals before defence of single sculls crown

Two-time Olympic rowing champion Mahe Drysdale is resigned to the possibility of not facing his closest rivals before the Tokyo start-line next year.

Exactly one year out from the postponed 2020 Olympics getting underway, Drysdale, 41, has recommitted to his fifth Games in a bid to retain the single sculls crown he captured at London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016.

Since the coronavirus pandemic delayed the Olympics another 12 months, the veteran has had to come to grips with prolonging a career that could have reached a fairytale conclusion with his dramatic photo-finish victory over Croatian Damir Martin four years ago.

Instead, he will attempt to become the third man to win sculling gold medals at three consecutive Olympics.

"That would pretty much finish my career on an absolute high and hopefully that's what I can achieve," Drysdale tells Newshub.

But with COVID-19 still wreaking havoc on world sport, the experienced campaigner is preparing for a build-up that may not include the traditional World Cup circuit in Europe, where he would ideally hone his competitive edge.

Although World Rowing has released a comprehensive pre-Olympic calendar, the powerful NZ programme may choose to bypass those regattas, rather than serve two weeks off the water in coronavirus isolation on their return home.

"Being a COVID-free country right now, we have a big advantage," he says. "There are still countries that are not back training as a squad.

"We have a very competitive environment here and everything we need to prepare as best we can.

"But looking ahead, we've got to be prepared that, potentially, we're not going to travel or race next year. We could go straight into Tokyo and have to race.

"I'm still confident in that, because I know what we've got in the shed and how many good crews we've got to benchmark ourselves off.

"We'll still have a very competitive environment, but we may not see some of our competitors until we step foot on the course at Tokyo.

"That's the danger we have in New Zealand, if the rest of the world gets on with life and we get left behind, trying to keep COVID out. While I think that's the right thing to do, it could cause some issues down the track for us."

Mental strength is the key

Drysdale stresses that decision is still months down the track, with coronavirus conditions - both worldwide and domestically - changing daily.

While he initially struggled with the idea of tacking another 12 months onto his already extended career, Drysdale insists New Zealand's two-month lockdown gave him and wife Juliette - herself a former Olympic rowing medallist - time to process the challenge that lay ahead.

"I rate myself as one of the mentally strongest athletes in the world," he tells Newshub. "These were things completely out of my control, and it had a massive effect on me and how I dealt with it.

"Losing all that motivation happened within a day, from being highly motivated to having no motivation at all. Thankfully, I had the back-up of family and I really immersed myself in that to get through it."

As determined as he is to achieve those three straight gold medals, Drysdale is also at ease, should the Olympics be permanently cancelled.

"I'd be quite comfortable, to be honest," he says. "That's what I came to grips with in lockdown.

"I still really want to go to Tokyo and there's no less motivation, but I've achieved everything I need to achieve.

"I've been to four Olympics, so if Tokyo didn't happen, it wouldn't be the end of the world for me.

"It takes a bit of pressure off me. A lot of athletes would see it as a year wasted, but I just don't see it that way."