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Three Books, Three Great Coaches

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we are all sheltering in place, observing social distancing, and putting in long hours on the erg, right? To maintain our sanity, why not read about rowing? I decided to work my way through a few of the rowing books that have piled up bedside. Thank goodness Amazon still delivers.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of conversations about what is the most important factor in having fast crews. The consensus among people who know is that the most important thing is having good athletes. But what about coaching? In rowing, the coach is the person who puts all the elements together, who gives the athletes the tools they need to go fast. If you want to learn more about how to make boats go faster, you should be studying what successful coaches do. So why not use this period away from the water to learn more about some of the most successful coaches?

First up for me was Hugh Matheson and Christopher Dodd’s More Power: The story of Jürgen Gröbler: The Most Successful Olympic Coach of All Time, a book that has been bedside for the past year. If you read about rowing, you are probably familiar with Mr. Dodd; this is his 10th rowing book. He is a trustee of the River and Rowing Museum and a longtime rowing correspondent for British newspapers as well as this magazine. Matheson was a giant in British rowing circles, winning a silver medal in the eight in the 1976 Olympics. Four years later he rowed the single in the Moscow Olympics.

Jurgen Gröbler cut his teeth in East Germany, where he rose rapidly to be the coach entrusted with the all-important Olympic boats. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he moved to Great Britain where he became the chief coach of the national team. Matheson and Dodd do not sidestep the issue of East Germany’s reliance on performance enhancing drugs and Gröbler’s part in their use. Gröbler admits that they were used extensively, but he says, “Some things that were going on at that time might not have been correct, but I can look everybody in the eye and not feel guilty.” The authors make a controversial statement when they write, “In the morality of that place and time he did no wrong.” That may well have been true if you were living and working in East Germany, but try telling that to athletes in the West. 

If Gröbler’s career had ended after East Germany, we might question his achievements, but his work in Great Britain, where there have not been any allegations of doping, shows the quality of his coaching. He inherited a GB program that was on the upswing since the mid-seventies. But after taking over as Steve Redgrave’s coach in 1992 and pairing him with Matthew Pinsent, Gröbler pushed the GB team to dominating performances.

He has now coached GB athletes to gold medals in seven consecutive Olympic games. More Power follows Gröbler’s path up to the present; it is a great read if you want to know more about coaching at the highest level. If Gröbler is the most successful contemporary coach, Thor Nilsen, the subject of Christopher Dodd’s latest book Thor Nilsen, Rowing’s Global Coach, is probably the coach who has had the most influence on other high-level coaches.

Full disclosure: In a feature article for this magazine seven years ago called “Game Changers,” I neglected to include Nilsen, an omission that I regret (I didn’t research thoroughly enough). I was quickly brought to task by several of Nilsen’s proteges, among them veteran international coach Kris Korzeniowski.

Although Nilsen had considerable success coaching elite crews, most notably his Norwegian countrymen and Olympic gold medalists the Hansen brothers in the double, it was as a teacher that he has had his greatest impact.

Nilsen is an unselfish teacher, a man who has always shared knowledge about every aspect of rowing with others. First at Banyoles, Spain, and later at Piediluco, Italy, he created what might be thought of as a college for coaches and gave other coaches the tools to be successful. More than any other person, he worked to make coaching education a real thing.

Dodd’s biography makes it clear that without Nilsen, knowledge about coaching rowing would be significantly diminished. And it wasn’t just Nilsen who shared physiological, technical, and training plans with others.

Those who drank from the Nilsen fountain of knowledge emulated him by sharing and spreading the word in their own way. In the United States, Nilsen’s foremost student, Korzeniowski, has worked tirelessly to help coaches learn from each other.

FISA’s development program was largely Nilsen’s creation. Dodd shows us why rowing world owes such a great debt to Thor Nilsen. The third book about an important coach is The Sphinx of the Charles, A Year at Harvard with Harry Parker by Toby Ayer.

I highly recommend this inside look at Parker and a year inside the Harvard boathouse. Ayer does not purport to write a history of Harry’s 51 years of coaching, or his 22 undefeated seasons, or 24 varsity titles at the Eastern Sprints, or 44 victories in the Harvard-Yale Race.

Ayer does not analyze Parker’s coaching; he shows it. Instead of explaining or pondering, this is a “fly on the wall” look at what went on inside Newell boathouse and on the Charles River. Besides presenting us with an account of the 2007-08 season, Ayer lets former Harvard oarsmen talk about what rowing and Harry meant to them.

Their comments are a moving tribute to the man one of his oarsmen called “the best teacher I ever had at Harvard.” Harry Parker has been gone seven years now, but reading this makes it seem like he is still with us. Ayer gets his subject just right.

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