Rowing: Search with a single focus

New Zealand could be without a genuine men's single sculling threat for the first time in nine years on the 2013 world rowing circuit.

Mahe Drysdale says Christmas is his deadline for deciding whether to return for a ninth consecutive season - but it seems unlikely.

In September, Drysdale told the Herald on Sunday he was considering a number of options such as rowing at the Henley Royal Regatta, doing a Coast-to-Coast or riding some Tour de France stages ahead of the 100th version of the race before staying to watch it.

Now 34, Drysdale was New Zealand's oldest gold medallist at the London Olympics. His biggest fear is committing too early to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games and questioning the decision 18 months in.

After his bronze medal in Beijing he intended to have a year off but, by December 2008, the love for what he was doing came back so he decided not to take any further time off.

A New Zealander has been the world or Olympic men's single sculls champion for nine of the last 15 years through Drysdale and Rob Waddell. Drysdale's likely absence would open the way for another New Zealand sculler to have a crack, with Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan the obvious candidates as Olympic and two-time world champions in the double sculls.

Neither has jumped at the chance, despite impressive junior and under-23 single sculls careers. Sullivan won gold two years in a row at the under-23 world championships in 2007 and 2008, while Cohen took a second in the 2006 edition and is a two-time junior silver medallist.

"The single is not really for me," Sullivan says. "It was more of a means to an end at the time. I would rather get into a crew boat at elite level. Besides, I never saw myself as a genuine contender to beat Mahe who is the world benchmark in that discipline.

"I'm keen to go back in the double for Rio if possible, but next year could be a chance to try something different [the quad or sweep oar boats are his other rowing options]. I have no idea how it will unfold."

Cohen is also weighing up how to approach next year. He talks about the Rowing New Zealand selectors' "clean slate" policy - meaning all spots in all boats are open to competition - but it's hard to imagine someone of his pedigree being omitted for enjoying a post-Olympic gold summer.

Cohen is already back training but will take time off before Christmas for a spot of boating in the Marlborough Sounds with his family. It's his first opportunity to do that in years; normally it clashes with a rowing training camp. He has also spent five weeks travelling in Kenya,

Uganda, Zambia and South Africa with his partner Jackie. A highlight included seeing 'The Big Five' game animals - the lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard and elephant - within an hour of their first safari drive in Kenya.

"What to do next is probably the hardest question at the moment," Cohen says. "We've been in this massive bubble, focusing on one day in four years and you never stop to think what happens afterwards. The last few months since the Games have not been normal for us. Six years is a long time to be in the double [Cohen teamed with Waddell in 2008 and Matthew Trott in 2007 and 2009].

"I need to work out the best way to be a better athlete now. There's no point continuing to Rio and blowing out in two years. However, the selectors will ultimately make that decision."

Cohen has enjoyed touring around the country since he and Sullivan came from last to first to win their final in one of New Zealand's most exhilarating Olympic moments.

"I've enjoyed going down south in particular," Cohen says. "It's been a chance to thank all those supporters in the clubs and at schools [sources say Cohen received a hero's welcome at his Invercargill alma mater James Hargest College]. Those occasions are probably the most enjoyable I've had since winning. One time at an intermediate school, all these kids swept around me and the medal was getting thrown around. They really appreciate trying it on."

Cohen says he regularly watches footage of their final and finds it hard not to relive every moment.

"Rowing can be a boring sport so we decided to make it a bit more exciting than, say, the men's pair race [where team-mates Eric Murray and Hamish Bond triumphed comfortably]," Cohen chuckles. "I love the bit with about four strokes to go when I knew we were going to win no matter what."

- By Andrew Alderson

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