The exciting life and work of a Norwegian in the world of competitive rowing

Göran R. Buckhorn
Editor, Hear the Boat Sing

Christopher Dodd
Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach
228 pages, hardcover.
London: Independent Publishing Network 2019
ISBN 978-1-912892-57-0

Christopher Dodd’s latest book, Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach, which was published last autumn, tells the story of the Norwegian Thor Nilsen. Born in 1931, Nilsen shared his rowing knowledge and coaching skills with whichever country or rower was interested in listening to him and taking his words to heart – and there were many. Nilsen’s road and mine crossed in Sweden in the 1990s but more about that later.

The saga started in Bærum, west of Oslo, Norway, on 9 May 1945 when 13-year-old Thor Sverre Nilsen together with his countrymen and women woke up to the news that Nazi Germany had surrendered. During the German occupation of Norway, both his parents, Leif and Karen, who came from working class backgrounds, were involved in producing underground newspapers for the Resistance. Young Thor was the delivery boy.

At age 14, Thor left school and became an apprentice at a print shop in Oslo. He was mad about sports and a year later he started rowing at the local rowing club in Bærum. His first success as an oarsman came during his first season when he became club champion in the coxed inrigger.

For the next 25 years, Thor Nilsen would compete at national and international regattas, including the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, where he and his crew were kicked out in the semi-finals in the coxed four. Six years later, he represented Norway in the coxless four at the European Championships in Poznan.

Thor Nilsen stroking an inrigger four. Photo from Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach.

In between these regattas in Finland and Poland, Nilsen’s business and private life took a turn for the worse. He had left the printing trade to start selling German swimming pools for children, which sounded like an honest way to make money. Nonetheless, the director of the company in Norway lacked money for the business, so he suggested to Nilsen that one way to make easy cash was to rob a post office. This was a tremendously stupid idea, but suddenly Nilsen found himself, together with his boss, inside a post office outside Bærum, with an unloaded gun. Of course, the police solved the case right away as the third member of the gang, sitting in the getaway car, had squealed to his brother, who was a member of the local police force.

Needless to say, the big Oslo newspaper Aftenposten splashed out the news that an Olympic rower was on his way to the clink for two and a half years. Nilsen’s prison sentence was cut down to a year and a half for good behavior. He went back to rowing. In 1960, Nilsen was training for the Rome Olympics, but he gave up the Olympic dream after he collapsed at a qualifying regatta in Copenhagen.

Have megaphone, will travel – Thor Nilsen during his younger coaching days. Photo from Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach.

While Thor Nilsen gave up going to the Olympics, he did not give up rowing. He started to coach both Swedish and Norwegian crews. By 1967, after a failed marriage, Nilsen met Ingmarie, a single mother with a 3-year-old boy, Steve. At the end of the 1960s, they all three moved to Strömstad on the Swedish west coast, close to the Norwegian border, where Nilsen continued his coaching.

Thor Nilsen’s passion for coaching began to blossom when he came across two talented Norwegian teenage brothers, Frank and Alf Hansen. The Hansens became world champions in the double sculls in 1975 and won the Olympic gold in the boat class the year after. By then, Nilsen had decided to give up his full-time job and concentrate on coaching rowing for a living.

1976: Frank and Alf Hansen – Olympic gold medallists in the double sculls.

With an Olympic gold as a coach under his belt, Nilsen, at age 45, took a leap and landed in Spain where the German ‘Dick’ Pieper and the Cuban Pedro Abreu had set up a rowing center in Banyoles, 150 km north-east of Barcelona. The rowing training and academic school was run by Nilsen, Pieper was looking after the equipment and administration, and Abreu was running the school and being the contact person with Federación Española de Remo and providing financial backing.

The center started to flourish and crews came from all over the world. Even the mighty Olympic sculling champion Pertti Karppinen of Finland showed up to try the water on Lake Banyoles. Nilsen, who had an exceptional ability to give advice on technique, helped Karppinen to polish his sculling technique. This aided the Finn to take his second Olympic gold medal in the single sculls, at the Moscow Games, and later his third gold in Los Angles – a triple sculling Olympic gold was a feat only the great Soviet sculler Vyachslav Ivanov had mastered before.

Lake Banyoles. Photo: Wikipedia.

One of the English rowers who came to the camp was Hugh Matheson, who not only came with his sculling coach Richard Wait, but also his girlfriend. Bringing the girlfriend came with a special request to Nilsen – despite his 1.96 meter height, Matheson was not interested in an extra-long bed, but an extra-wide one, Christopher Dodd writes.

Banyoles proved to be an ideal spot for rowing. Though, due to its geographical location, in Catalonia, it was a political hot spot at the time. In September 1980, Pedro Abreu was kidnapped by members of the Basque nationalist and separatist organization ETA. He spent 46 days in a tiny cell below a remote farmhouse. The Cuban was released after his family had paid US$2m in ransom. The kidnappers demanded more than money: Abreu was to conduct no further sport activity or social work in Spain. He told Pieper to close the rowing center and the academy and sell the boats and equipment. Soon thereafter, Abreu and his family left the country.

Nevertheless, Pieper managed to keep the center open. When it was decided that Barcelona was going to host the 1992 Olympic Games, Thomi Keller, president of the International Rowing Federation, FISA, secured Lake Banyoles for the Olympic rowing. There were two official reasons and one unofficial reason why Keller wanted the rowing at Banyoles: the conditions were excellent and the costs were low – the third reason was that he wanted to have some distance between himself and the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. David Owen unfolds their many disputes in his biography of the FISA President, Thomi Keller: A Life in Sport (2018).

With the kidnapping of Abreu, Thor and Ingmarie Nilsen’s ‘Catalonian Period’ ended abruptly. In 1981, they set course for Italy when the Italian rowing federation hired Nilsen to run Centro Nazionale di Canottaggio on Lago di Piediluco in the central part of Italy. As the new technical director for the rowing center, Nilsen set up a laboratory, gym and conference room. He was also allowed to use the facilities at Piediluco as a center for his FISA development program, which was still in its infancy. He had a knack for finding the right people for different positions at Piediluco.

Lago di Piediluco. Photo: Wikipedia.

As in Banyoles, rowers and coaches from around the world found their way to Nilsen in Piediluco. Among the rowers who came for a shorter or longer stay were the world’s best: the Hansen brothers; Pertti Karppinen; Steve Redgrave and Chris Baillieu from Britain; Ricardo Ibarra from Argentina; Tricia Smith and Betsy Craig of Canada; and many more. Loads of future coaching stars also stopped by in Piediluco as did a few up-and-coming FISA bigwigs.

One was the Pole Kris Korzeniowski, who had coached the U.S. women’s squad since 1977 and was coach at Princeton and ex-coach for Canada’s national team. The Norwegian had met Korzeniowski at the World Championships in 1981 and invited him to work in Italy. When Korzeniowski showed up in Piediluco, Nilsen gave him the coaching ‘Bible’, Chats on Rowing (1934) by Steve Fairbairn, to read.

Thor Nilsen’s Bible. Photo from Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach.

In late 1983, Korzeniowski left Piediluco when he was appointed head coach for the U.S. men’s team for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. ‘But the appointment was not without controversy and bitterness,’ Dodd writes. Many of the American rowers believed that the coaching position should have gone to Harvard’s coach, Harry Parker – and so thought Parker himself. The Harvard coach had geared up a very strong men’s team for the previous Olympics, but they were all denied going to Moscow when President Carter put a travel ban for the U.S. athletes. A retaliation boycott came from the Kremlin for the 1984 Games when the Soviets and Eastern Bloc countries stayed home. Parker got revenge when he was picked to coach the U.S. women’s eight, who won gold on Lake Casitas.

In Thor Nilsen, Korzeniowski mentions what an exceptional training center Piediluco was when it came to the combination of science and practical knowledge. ‘I don’t see anything comparable or close to what Thor Nilsen was able to create in Piediluco right now,’ Korzeniowski says.

The time in Piediluco was exciting, Ingmarie Nilsen tells Dodd, ‘it was the best time in Thor’s life’. But happiness can be fleeting. In 1990, Nilsen and the new incoming Italian president, Gian Antonio Romanini, clashed over the selection of the Italian rowers and coaches for the 1990 World Championships. The Norwegian refused to alter his selection. He told his wife to pack their bags and get ready to leave Piediluco.

The chapter about the Nilsens in Piediluco, “The Roman Period”, is where the book really shines, offering us readers plentiful anecdotes, something we expect in a book by Christopher Dodd.

Ingmarie and Thor Nilsen with Glocky in Labro, overlooking the lake at Piediluco. Photo from Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach.

It was during the Norwegian’s time in Piediluco that FISA realized that the organization needed a development program with a universal coaching guide, Be a Coach, which Nilsen edited with the help of Ted Daigneault and Matt Smith, both from the so-called Piediluco faculty. FISA also became aware that the organization needed more national federations to join its ranks to be able to sustain inclusion in the Olympic Games. After Keller’s early death, at age 64 in 1989, the presidency was taken over by Denis Oswald. During the 1990s, FISA successfully managed to get Asian, African and South American countries to join the organization by including lightweight classes in the Olympics.

Three decades later, in the lightweight class, only the men’s and women’s double sculls remain in the Olympic rowing program, after FISA dropped the men’s lightweight four to be able to add the women’s heavyweight four. For the 2020 Olympic Games, hopefully being held in 2021, rowing has reached gender equity between men and women with seven Olympic boat classes each.

As the book title suggests, Thor Nilsen was ‘global’ in his FISA work, dealing with its educational projects and his coaching, which also reached rowers in Asia, South America and Africa, each continent getting its own chapter in Dodd’s splendid book.

In the 1960s, Norway and Sweden were small rowing nations (they still are). It had been the custom in many countries that it club crews represented the country at the European Championships and the Olympic Games. Consequently, Thor Nilsen met great resistance from the Norwegian clubs when he began preaching that by combining the best rowers from different clubs more medals would be won at international championships.

The rowing association and the clubs in Sweden had the same view as their Norwegian friends, although twice in the history of Swedish rowing, two foreign coaches had neglected to follow this ‘rule’. For the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Jack Farrell of London RC was hired to select and train the best oarsmen he could find in Sweden. Farrell’s combination for the inrigger coxed four with rowers from Malmö Roddklubb and Helsingborgs Roddklubb won the Olympic silver medal. In the mid-1950s, the American coach Gösta ‘Gus’ Eriksen, whose parents came from Åland, a Finnish island in the Baltic Sea that is Swedish speaking, was hired to select and train the Swedish national team. ‘[Eriksen] soon realized that Sweden had some good oarsmen but no good crews,’ Dodd writes in Thor Nilsen. Eriksen solved the problem by picking the best rowers from three clubs: Kungälvs Roddklubb, Strömstads Roddklubb and Trollhättans Roddsällskap to form some brilliant crews. Eriksen and the oarsmen founded a new club, RK Three Towns. The crews from Three Towns took the silver medals in the coxed four and eight at the 1955 European Championships. The eight reached but lost the final in the Grand Challenge Cup at the famous Henley Regatta in 1956. At the Olympic rowing at Ballarat, the Swedish coxed four took the silver medal; two hours later, the four formed half of the eight who finished in fourth place in the final. Eriksen’s eight was the only European crew in the final.

The Swedish crew from Roddklubben af 1912 which came second in the coxed inrigger four at the Olympic rowing. The man in the London Rowing Club cap is the coach, James ‘Jack’ Farrell.

At the end of the 1960s, Thor Nilsen was finally successful at combining crews with rowers from different clubs in Norway.

It was in the 1990s I came to interact with Nilsen, mostly because of my role as co-editor of the Swedish rowing magazine Svensk Rodd, an editorship I shared with my good friend Per Ekström. In 1993, Ekström and I – together Lars-Åke Pejder, a nice fellow who rowed in church boats in the province of Dalecarlia – were voted into the election committee of the board of the Swedish Rowing Association.

A suggestion for a new president of the association for 1995 came from the rowing club in Strömstad – Thor Nilsen. The Nilsens, after a short stint in Switzerland, had settled in Strömstad after moving from Piediluco. With the Nilsens in Strömstad, the town had suddenly become a hub for the international rowing elite. In the streets of the town, you could hear Danish, Norwegian and some funny Swedish dialects spoken, together with English that had a South African or Irish twang to it.

We in the election committee believed that Nilsen, though a controversial choice, was a splendid name as the association’s new chairman. Hopefully, the Norwegian with all his global contacts, would push Swedish rowing into the international spotlight and get Swedish rowers to play on the same waters as the world’s best. Many of the clubs in Sweden did not agree. Pejder, Ekström and I were named the worst election committee the Swedish Rowing Association had ever had. Nevertheless, we stuck with our candidate.

In December 1994, at the Swedish Rowing Association annual meeting, which was poorly attended, Thor Nilsen was elected chairman of the association for the year of 1995. He had big plans for Swedish rowing. Many of the clubs – most of which had not been at the annual meeting in Strömstad to oppose the election of him as chairman – were still unhappy with the Norwegian at the top.

‘It would have been nice with a medal’, Thor told the reviewer in an interview for Svensk Rodd, August 1996.

In 1995, Sweden’s best female rower, Maria Brandin, became world champion in the single sculls, the first Swede to take a gold medal at the worlds. Things were looking good for an Olympic medal for Brandin on Lake Lanier. There were also Olympic medal hopes for the Swedish quad, coached by Nilsen, and for the men’s lightweight double sculls.

Sadly, Brandin ended up fourth in the single sculls final, and the quad and double finished sixth in their respective Olympic A-finals. Though having three crews in Olympic finals was the best result Swedish rowing had had for many years, it was a disappointment, also for Nilsen, who had been elected chairman for a second year. ‘We are pleased, but it would have been nice with a medal,’ he told me for an interview in Svensk Rodd. But it did not end there. Nilsen, who was at the Olympics, was heavily criticized in the Swedish press for not spending more time with the Swedish rowers at Lake Lanier. He explained that he had been at the Olympic rowing as a representative of FISA to consult and help 18 smaller rowing nations, not as chairman of the Swedish Rowing Association.

Fredrik Ludl, Maria Brandin’s Norwegian coach and boyfriend, was the loudest of critics. He voiced his opinion in interviews in the Swedish media that Nilsen should immediately leave as chairman. Of course, Nilsen ignored Ludl’s demand. The duo Brandin/Ludl had for a very long time been at odds with the entire rowing community in Sweden. And when it came to Nilsen, Ludl whispered loudly, his countryman had been involved in a robbery when he was a young man. Very few people in the Swedish rowing community believed or cared if that was the case.

In the end, Ludl was proven right. Nilsen did not go for a third year as chairman. He realized that ‘the Swedish way was not his way,’ Dodd states in Thor Nilsen. With the Norwegian’s exit, the three members of the election committee for the board of the association made their retreat, and very happily so.

Thor Nilsen retires from FISA, World Rowing, 2016. Photo: FISA.

Nilsen’s enormous impact on rowing in Europe is shown in the chapter “The European Theatre” in Thor Nilsen. Today, in some of the smaller rowing nations, Greece, Ireland and Norway, you can still see the ‘Thor effect’. Even if Nilsen met a lot of critique in Sweden in the mid-1990s, ‘he opened some eyes and doors during his short sojourn as joint president of the federation and director of its rowing,’ Dodd writes.

In “The Universe After Thor”, the last chapter of Dodd’s biography, Nilsen receives accolades from all the corners of the rowing world. About the Norwegian, Oswaldo Borchi says: ‘Rowing has two periods, BT and AT. Before Thor, there was nothing. Thor is the Big Teacher.’

Christopher Dodd wraps up his well-written and wonderful book about the Norwegian by writing: ‘[Nilsen] never forgets why he first became involved in rowing and what it was that attracted him. He never forgets how to tell it to the world.’

Copyright © Göran R. Buckhorn 2020

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