As one of New Zealand’s most esteemed athletes, Rob Waddell is taking all he has learned as an Olympic gold medallist and America’s Cup gladiator and transferring it into successful leadership. In the mould of Sir Peter Blake, Rob is renowned for “dreaming big”.A strong advocate of team work, Rob’s professionalism, focus, honesty and determination inspires others to follow his example.
As well as working with charitable organisations to advance sport and protect the environment, he is at the head of New Zealand’s largest sporting teams, as chef de mission for the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games.
This year he leads the cream of New Zealand’s athletes into Olympic battle in Rio de Janeiro. In his role, he is responsible for setting standards of excellence, overseeing the planning and preparation of the team, and ensuring the athletes have what they need to succeed. That’s where his experience at the pinnacle of world sport comes into play.
Growing up on a farm in the heart of the King Country, Rob earned a steadfast work ethic from his hardworking parents. He took up rowing while boarding at King’s College in Auckland, and first stamped his mark on the New Zealand elite rowing scene in 1995, when, at just 20, he became the youngest-ever winner of the national single sculls title.
He went on to win three world championships – two outdoor, one indoor - before becoming New Zealand’s only gold medallist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In a class of his own, Rob finished 1.5 seconds clear of his nearest rival. He was honoured with carrying the New Zealand flag at the Olympic closing ceremony.
During his illustrious rowing career, Rob competed at three Olympic Games. He became the first athlete to win the Halberg Award for sportsperson of the year in three consecutive years, and was twice awarded the Lonsdale Cup, for the most outstanding contribution to an Olympic sport by a New Zealand athlete. He served on the Athlete Commission of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, and in 2001, was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to rowing.
Having achieved all of his rowing goals, Rob turned to a new on-the-water challenge – becoming a grinder competing for yachting’s holy grail, the America’s Cup. Even though he had no sailing experience to speak of, his strength, determination and dedication spoke volumes.
During three Cup campaigns – in 2003, 2007 and 2013 – and 13 years with Team New Zealand, Rob learned the dynamics and culture of a team, accountability and attention to detail. He remained fiercely loyal to New Zealand, despite significant financial offers to compete for teams offshore.
His sporting endeavours weren’t limited to water sports – he also represented Waikato in rugby and has a black belt in judo.
Humble and pragmatic, Rob went through his sporting career quietly battling a debilitating heart condition. The atrial fibrillation put him at serious risk of a stroke, and he finally underwent heart surgery in 2009.
While competing – and dominating - on the world stage, Rob also set himself academic goals. Studying at Waikato University, he completed a Bachelor of Management Studies with honours, majoring in marketing and Japanese.
Passionate about helping people, Rob is now travelling the path of social entrepreneur, generously giving his time to charitable organisations. He is a trustee of The Halberg Disability Sport Foundation, which enables physically disabled New Zealanders to participate in sport and recreation, and set up the Halberg Endowment Fund.
He was chair (and now vice chair) of the Home of Cycling Charitable Trust in Cambridge, and was instrumental in securing funds for the world-class Avantidrome sports centre – an often-controversial $31.5 million project.
He is a former trustee of the Te Awa Cycleway, a 70km path along the Waikato River for walkers and cyclists, and teamed up with neighbours to restore an ecological corridor along the river bank, eradicating pests and replanting native bush.
Rob lives by the river with his wife, three-time Olympic rower Sonia (nee Scown), and their three children. Together they own and manage Riverdale Farm, a thoroughbred agistment property in Cambridge.
In 2014, Rob was chef de mission at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, leading New Zealand’s most successful team on foreign soil, winning 45 medals. As he takes the 2016 Olympic team to Rio, Rob’s leadership strengths – integrity, commitment, understanding, diligence and fostering team culture - will come to the fore.