Saturday, July 20, 2024

Mahe Drysdale – Overcoming the pain of arthritis and winning Olympic Gold

By Mark Dawson - Sponsored Content

When Mahé Drysdale embarked on his stellar rowing career there were some prerequisites – remarkable stamina, a highly technical skillset, exacting co-ordination … and sheer bloody determination. What wasn’t on the list was a belt made from the skin of that notorious Aussie invader, the brushtail possum. But the New Zealand rowing legend admits that without a possum fur belt strapped round his midriff, the two Olympic gold medals that crowned his time in the single sculls may never have happened.

With a bronze medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and four world championship titles, Mahé was on the brink of greatness when a back injury in 2010 resulted in prolonged osteoarthritis.

His 6ft 7in frame already made him more prone to back issues and rowing is a sport where a huge amount of power goes through the back.

“I suffered a bulging disc during trials week in March 2010,” he recalls.

“For a long time I did not really know what was going on – I just kept having trouble with my back. It would be fine for about three weeks, then it would flare up again and I would be sore and stiff.”

“I just couldn’t get away from the pain. It was so frustrating because I could not do the training I needed to do.”

There was a mental toll as well as a physical one. “It took it out of you — I remember Easter 2010 being mentally fatigued. I had heard of people with ongoing pain suffering depression and I came to understand how debilitating it was.”

Mahé’s profile ensured that any number of people came forward with various ideas and devices that might remedy things.

“I’d tried braces, magnets, deer velvet and health tonics of all descriptions … I tried everything, but nothing worked.”

In early 2011, he was approached by Colin Cox, a retired Whanganui farmer and pioneer of the deer industry, who had been investigating the qualities of possum fur – fur which actually breathes as the individual strands are hollow.

While things like heat pads warm the muscles and ease lower back pain, they eventually cool down. However, Colin discovered that the hollow fibres of the possum provided thermal stability to the back, maintaining a constant temperature a few degrees warmer than the skin surface. They also prevented perspiration, condensation and stickiness as the hollow strands assisted evaporation of moisture.

In the words of Mahe, “Colin told me his possum fur belt was ‘magic’ when it came to easing back pain and he sent me one.”

“I started wearing it and things improved straight away. I thought ‘Is it the belt or is it just that occasional easing of the pain’. So I went a few days without the belt and my back stiffened up – I realised that this really does work.”

Mahé worked with Colin on developing the belt, producing modifications to make it more streamlined and comfortable while rowing.

“We ended up with something that when you put it on, you hardly know it is there.”

Mahé wore the possum belt every day as he trained six days a week, two sessions per day, mixing gym work with time on the water.

Freed from the burden of back pain, Mahé went on to write a glorious chapter in the annals of Kiwi sporting history, winning a fifth world championship in 2011 before claiming single sculls gold at the 2012 London games and retaining his Olympic title four years later in Rio, the possum belt wrapped round him for each of those triumphs.

He also won the New Zealand Sportsman of the Year award on five occasions, an achievement unequalled in the history of the award and the only person to have won it more than three times.

The possum belts are marketed by Painaway NZ Ltd, a company owned by Whanganui businessman Henry Newrick.

Newrick stresses that the possum fur belts do not cure lower back pain, but can provide substantial relief, allowing the sufferer to become mobile and to largely resume their normal life, returning to work, earning a living, getting back into sport etc. His company also produces possum fur products to ease knee, wrist and neck pain.

Further information can be found at or call 0800 115 241 for a free brochure.

About the writer: Mark Dawson is an award winning journalist and former editor of The Whanganui Chronicle.

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