'A very kind man with a huge heart' - Kiwi rowing icon Eric Verdonk remembered

Andy Hay is a two-time world champion cox, 1984 Olympian and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, and the editor of 1 NEWS Sport.

Eric Verdonk competing in the 10th Anniversary BWC single sculls race on the Whanganui River, December 2018 Source: Photosport

You never knew what you were going to run into coming round the corner at Lake Karapiro on those foggy winter evenings.

But as cox of the New Zealand eight in 1986, I knew at some stage it would be Eric Verdonk in his single sculls.

He'd wait by a bend and as we were approaching, fall into line just on our bow, and stay there, and stay there and stay there until we could finally get past him - or he'd had enough of baiting us.

There was no speed difference between the boats in Eric's mind, no overwhelming advantage for us in the eight. He wanted all those guys to know that their set in the big boat had to be earned every day.

It was a constant reminder of the competitor he was and the sheer force of will he possessed.

Maybe missing out on that seat in the eight was the best thing that ever happened to Eric's rowing career.

That year he won a bronze medal in the single at the Commonwealth Games and two years later won an Olympic bronze, beaten by two of the biggest names in the sport at that time.

He finished a very close fourth at the Barcelona Games four years later and became the first New Zealander to win the Diamond Single Sculls title at the famous Henley Royal regatta. He also won 15 national titles in those years before becoming a prolific Masters rower.

Eric loved rowing.

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Mike Stanley, who rowed with him at the North Shore club remembers seeing Eric at Karapiro a few years ago. Mike was coaching Eric's son, and Eric had just got off the water on a training row of his own, absolutely buzzing.

He would have been in his mid 50s by then. Mike asked him why the big smiles. "'Well, Mike,' he said. 'I think I've finally perfected the rowing stroke. Best row of my life.'"

Eric did take a little time to become the best rower he could be. He made a later start than the rest of us at North Shore, leaving the sport after finishing school to go surfing in Bali for a couple of years.

But when he came back he brought a whole new dynamic to our crews, and when he got his opportunity in the single scull he never looked back.

The rowers at Takapuna Grammar School will be hurting today.

Eric Verdonk stands with Mahe Drsydale at the 2018 Billy Webb Challenge. Source: Photosport

Eric was their head coach from 2017. He got their programme up and running and brought success to the school like they've never seen.

I know they'll be hurting because they'll be reflecting on the guy we all knew as an athlete when we were having our time on the water all those years ago.

A very kind man with a huge heart, someone who would always make time to pass on his knowledge and experience. A mentor to so many.

Just last week Takapuna Grammar made Eric a life member of their club. I saw him not long before they were about to visit him in hospital. He was sitting in the sun, his first time outside for weeks and loving the cool breeze.

And though he was very ill he was still detailing the race plans he'd devised for the kids at the secondary school nationals, the Maadi Cup regatta they never got to go to.

A big smile on his face. Possessed by that rowing spirit that fuelled him for just about all his life.