BY CHIP DAVIS | PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
Thor Nilsen, who died Oct. 5 (his birthday) at age 92, achieved renown as a legendary coach and internationally respected innovator who fostered the sport of rowing by applying science to style and training.
Nilsen earned the sobriquet “Rowing’s Global Coach” through his pioneering coaching, methodical approaches to training, and expansive administration of the sport. He was a major influence on rowing in the period of greatest international growth when lightweight rowing was included in the Olympic Games finally, and Asian, African, and South American countries joined the international rowing federation (FISA, now World Rowing). Before then, fewer than 100 countries had legitimate rowing federations; over 160 do now.
“The rowing world can be divided into two periods following the Second World War: before Thor Nilsen and after Thor Nilsen,” wrote Chris Dodd in his Nilsen biography, Rowing’s Global Coach.
“Before, there was nothing. After, there was application of science to style and training, shared information, and open communication between coaches and crews. Nilsen’s World Rowing development program expanded across five continents and cemented the sport’s place in the Olympic Games.”
“He was an icon and set the standard for all of us. We all craved his validation,” said former U.S. men’s coach Mike Teti, who coached the U.S. men’s eight to Olympic gold and bronze in 2004 and 2008, as well as three straight world championships, from 1997 though 1999.
“In 1998, he came up to me after the heat and said, ‘I really like the way your crew rows, I really like their rhythm,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my God, Thor Nilsen just gave me validation!’ He’ll be missed sorely.”
As an oarsman, Nilsen represented his native Norway in the 1952 Olympic Games. He had grown up in a working-class family in Baerum, near Oslo, where he survived the Nazi occupation. His parents, Leif and Karen, helped publish underground newspapers for the Resistance, and Nilsen was the delivery boy. He began rowing at 15 at a local club in offset shells called “inriggers” and in time raced in national and international regattas.
Nilsen began working in printing and sales, and his remarkable early life included robbing a post office, being suspected of spying for the Soviets, and serving time in prison. A fellow convict introduced him to his sister, whom Nilsen married after his release.
He became a rowing coach relatively late in life and guided Norwegian brothers Frank and Alf Hansen to Olympic gold in 1976 when he was 45.
After those Olympics, held in Montreal, Nilsen made his way to Lake Banyoles in the Catalonia region of Spain, where the rowing center he established with Dick Pieper and Pedro Abreu attracted the top rowers in the world
Finnish sculling great Pertti Karppinen trained with Nilsen at Banyoles before winning his second and third Olympic golds at the Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984) Olympic regattas. Hugh Matheson, who won Olympic silver despite racing against crews powered by steroids, and other elite British rowers went to Banyoles to train before the kidnapping of Abreu by Basque separatists and other misfortunes led to its decline. A last hurrah came in 1992 when the venue hosted the rowing events of the Barcelona Olympics.
Nilsen’s next stop was Italy’s Lago di Piediluco, to which he brought the structured, demanding, and scientific training methods that have become the standard of today’s high-performance rowing. Nilsen shared his rowing knowledge and approaches to coaching and training openly.
“Thor taught us that coaching is all about helping athletes reach their potential by sharing information and knowledge,” wrote former World Rowing chief Matt Smith in the preface of Dodd’s book. “For him, there are no national boundaries or limits to his generosity toward motivated athletes who want to train hard and smart.”
A huge beneficiary of Nilsen’s generosity is U.S. rowing great Kris Korzenowski, who went to Piediluco in the early ’80s after serving as a Canadian, U. S. National Team, and Princeton women’s coach and before returning to the U.S. to prepare the men for the ’84 Olympics in LA.
“I don’t see anything comparable or close to what Thor Nilsen was able to create in Piediluco,” Korzo later said.
“He was an innovator in so many ways,” said Teti. “I’m grateful that I had time to learn from him.” chip Davis