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Thursday, August 28

Heroes welcome!!

With flowers, banners, and loud cheers, New Zealand 's Olympic team were given a welcome home which left most of them stunned today.

About 1000 people crammed into Auckland International Airport's arrivals area to welcome home one of the country's most successful Olympic teams this morning.

They greeted the Olympians, who were led in by the returning medal winners, with an enthusiasm which caught the team by surprise.

"We were told there was going to be a welcome at the airport but we didn't imagine this many people. It's great to know there's this much support behind us," bronze medal-winning rower Mahe Drysdale said.

"It makes you feel pretty special when people go through that sort of effort to come and wish us well at the airport. It makes all the hard work so worthwhile."

After becoming team leader and carrying the flag in the opening ceremony, Drysdale earned a bronze medal despite a stomach bug which left him visibly ill at the end of the race.

Drysdale, the dominant single sculler in the world in the past four years, said the welcome home would spur him on towards the London Olympics in 2012.

"I love the Olympics, I've been to two now. I just feel like I need to go and finish on a note that I'm happy with," he said. "I feel like although I gave everything this time I didn't get the results I wanted."

The largest fan clubs appeared to be for Drysdale and gold medal-winning shot putter Valerie Vili, whose siblings and extended family greeted her.

Vili was delighted to see her family, among them her four-month-old nephew, and, unlike Drysdale, she said the London Games were not on her mind.

"I'm not even thinking that far. Let us just enjoy the moment."

There to greet BMX cyclist Sarah Walker, who was fourth in her event, were people from her home town of Kawerau, in eastern Bay of Plenty, and from Trident High School in Whakatane.

The school party had travelled to Auckland with council funding and stayed at a marae in Manukau overnight before heading to the airport.

"It's really special," said Walker, who heads back overseas shortly for a Nike photo shoot in Sydney. "Trident High School is the high school I went to and to have them up here is fantastic, it's a long journey for them."

The visit home was one which boardsailing gold medallist Tom Ashley enjoyed much more than four years ago. He had gone to the Athens Games expecting to do well but ended up 10th.

"This is sensational. It's great to have come having achieved a goal," he said.

"I remember how I felt in the airport after Athens coming home on that flight and it wasn't a good feeling. This is much better."

The Olympians had watched Air New Zealand staff welcome them home on the tarmac with a haka, and were then welcomed home by Prime Minister Helen Clark before walking into the throng of supporters.

Team chef de mission Dave Currie said the welcome home was unbelievable.

"This is overwhelmingly bigger than anything else I've ever been in, and I think a neat tribute to the athletes and they deserve it. Most of them have been just blown away by the sheer size and scope of this," he said

"The support from New Zealand right through the Games has been unbelievable, and this is a real manifestation of it so we're really excited, and I'm excited for the team who've worked so hard."

Currie, who has been chef de mission to several Olympics and Commonwealth Games, said he'd like to do the job again if asked.

He said the team had been united and performed well and was looking forward to their performances in 2012.

"Already the team are talking about the athletes who are committed to going on to 2012 -- athletes like Mahe, who would have liked gold, saying he's got to go back to London to get that gold medal.

"There's a whole range of athletes like that who I think because it was a great experience, want to go on and have another crack in London."

All the medallists were present apart from 1500m bronze medal winner Nick Willis, who travelled directly to Europe for competitions there.-NZPA

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