Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach – Part I

16 July 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn dives into Chris Dodd’s latest biography, Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach. The book shows that the international rowing community at large has Thor Nilsen to thank for almost everything.

I have admired Chris Dodd’s writing on rowing for many years. I followed his writing about the sport in The Guardian and then his stint at The Independent. For many years, I subscribed to ARA’s magazine Regatta, which was founded by Chris and had him as its editor, and his World Rowing magazine, published by FISA (now called World Rowing). I have read almost all his brilliant books, from the first one, Henley Royal Regatta (1981) to his and Hugh Matheson’s More Power: The Story of Jurgen Grobler, The Most Successful Olympic Coach of All Time published 2018. I’m delighted, to say the least, that Chris has been a regular contributor to HTBS since December 2015.

Chris Dodd. Photo: Tim Koch

In his many books Chris has covered everything in the sport, from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman rowing, the 1800s and 1900s amateurs and professionals, to the Blues’ Boat Races and the races at Henley Royal. In 2012, Chris published Pieces of Eight: Bob Janousek and his Olympians about the Czech coach Bohumil ‘Bob’ Janoušek, who gave the British rowers a well-needed push towards the medal podium at the world’s rowing arenas in the beginning of the 1970s. Chris, himself, called Pieces of Eight ‘a memoir’, pointing out that the book was not a ‘history’, nor, I would add, a traditional biography on Janoušek. This book about the Czech coach and British rowing’s rise from obscurity is as good as Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat. You don’t believe me? Buy Pieces of Eight and see for yourself…

The rowing biography More Power by Matheson, who was one of Janoušek’s boys in the boat, and Chris is about Jurgen Grobler and his involvement in the sport: the coaching skills he practiced in East Germany (DDR) and Great Britain, starting out in the latter country at the Pink Palace then moving on to the GB national team.

Chris’s latest book, which was published last autumn, Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach, does not disappoint. It is also a rowing biography, but about a man who shared his knowledge and skills as a coach with whichever rower or country was interested in listening to him and taking his words to heart – and there were many. The famous Norwegian Thor Nilsen, 88, is still involved in the sport, now from his apartment overlooking the Oslofjorden. Nilsen’s road and mine crossed in Sweden in the 1990s, but more about that in Part II of this article.

Chris has divided up the 228-page Thor Nilsen in 10 chapters, or as some chapters are called ‘periods’ or ‘theatres’. 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 Thor’s parents, Leif and Karen, coming 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 inrigger. For the next 25 years, Thor 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, Thor’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 Thor that one way to make easy cash was to rob a post office. This was a tremendously stupid idea, but suddenly Thor found himself, together with his boss, inside the post office in Stabekk, close to 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 paper Aftenposten splashed out the news that an Olympic rower was on his way to the clink for two and a half years. Not only was Thor now a robber, he was also accused of being a Soviet spy. It took the authorities six months to understand that the spy allegations were pure fantasy. Thor’s prison sentence was cut down to a year and a half for good behaviour. A fellow prisoner asked Thor to contact his girlfriend. She was beautiful, so soon Thor and the young woman, Anne-Lise, were a couple. This didn’t go down well with the former boyfriend/jailbird, who broke out of prison to set out to get them. He was eventually arrested by the police. Thor and Anne-Lise got married and their daughter Aina was born in 1959. The year after, Thor was working two jobs while also training for the Rome Olympics. 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”.

Whilst Thor might have given up going to the Olympics, he didn’t give up rowing. He started to coach both Swedish and Norwegian crews, something he had done already in the mid-1950s. By 1964, his and Anne-Lise’s marriage had broken down and he was living in Gothenburg, Sweden. In 1967, Thor met Ingmarie, a single mother with a 3-year-old boy, Steve. At the end of the 1960s, they all three moved to Strömstad, Sweden, close to the Norwegian border, where Thor continued his coaching.

Thor’s passion for coaching really 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, Thor 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 rowing gold as a coach under his belt, Thor soon got offers to coach crews. In 1976, at age 45, he took a leap and landed in Spain where the German ‘Dick’ Pieper and the Cuban Pedro Abreu had set up a rowing centre in Banyoles, 150 km north-east of Barcelona. The rowing training and academic school was run by Thor, 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.

Lake Banyoles. Photo: Wikipedia.

The centre started to flourish and crews came from all over the world, including Scandinavians and British rowers and coaches. Even the mighty sculling champion Finn Pertti Karppinen showed up to try the water on Lake Banyoles. Thor, 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 one in Los Angles – a triple sculling Olympic gold was a feat only the great Vyachslav Ivanov had mastered before.

One of the English rowers who came to Thor’s camp was Hugh Matheson – Chris’s later to be co-author of their Grobler book – who not only came with his sculling coach Richard Wait, but also his girlfriend. Bringing his girlfriend came with a special request to Thor – despite his 1.96 metre height, Matheson was not interested in an extra-long bed, but an extra-wide one, 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, Abreu was kidnapped by members of the Basque nationalist and separatist organisation 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 centre and the academy and sell the boats and equipment. Soon thereafter, Abreu and his family moved to Switzerland.

Pieper sold the boats and equipment to the Catalan government for a fraction of what it was worth but managed to keep the centre open. When it became clear that Barcelona was going to host the 1992 Olympic Games, the President of FISA Thomi Keller managed to secure that the Olympic rowing was to be held on Lake Banyoles. 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’s president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. David Owen unfolds their many disputes in his wonderful biography of the FISA President, Thomi Keller: A Life in Sport (2018).

With the kidnapping of Abreu, Thor and Ingmarie’s ‘Catalonian Period’ ended abruptly. However, in 1981, the Nilsens set course for Italy, when the Italian rowing federation’s President Paulo d’Aloja hired Thor to run Centro Nazionale di Canottaggio on Lago di Piediluco in Umbria, in the central part of Italy. As the new technical director for the rowing centre, Thor set up a laboratory, gym and conference room. Thor was also allowed to use the facilities at Piediluco as a centre for his FISA development programme, which was still in its infancy.

Lago di Piediluco. Photo: Wikipedia.

Thor noticed that the Italian way of coaching was not the way he had coached the Nordic crews or the rowers who came to Banyoles. Many of the Italian coaches seemed to have an attitude from the 1930s: they never cooperated with each other and their rowers had no say. It was obvious that the old guard were ignorant of the new rowing technique and physiology. While Thor managed to change some of the coaches’ mindsets, others stayed as stubborn as before. The Norwegian encouraged curiosity among the younger coaches both in the clubs and at Piediluco.

In Piediluco was a college for talented junior rowers – school in the morning and rowing in the afternoon. The college was run by Gianni Postiglione and his wife Teresa, both of whom Thor had hired. Soon, the students showed good results, as did some lightweights coached by Gianni. At the 1982 World Championships for Juniors, held in Piediluco, all the Postigliones ‘kids’ won medals. The same year, the lightweight four coached by Gianni took a gold medal at the World Championships in Lucerne – the first for an Italian lightweight four.

Thor had a knack of finding the right people for different positions. He invited Beppe De Capua to be the coach for the Italian scullers despite that De Capua, who had been the Italian team manager, had no coaching experience. Thor explained that he was looking for a person with team spirit, knowledge of the sport, a good personality and the potential to be a top coach, which was what De Cupa had, the Norwegian thought. And, as Thor said to De Capua, ‘I’ll be there to help you.’

As in Banyoles, rowers and coaches from around the world found their way to Thor in Piediluco. 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. Thor had met Korzeniowski at the World Championships in 1981 and invited him to work in Italy. When Korzeniowski showed up in Piediluco, Thor gave him the coaching ‘Bible’, Chats on Rowing by Steve Fairbairn, to read. Korzeniowski regarded himself a little as a coaching genius, but he was soon brought down to Earth from what he saw and heard. ‘He thought how lucky the Italians were to be taught the correct way from the beginning,’ Dodd writes.

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

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.

Whilst Thor was soft in his approach towards the rowers, he was very demanding. The days were long and hard, and everyone lived and breathed rowing almost all hours around the clock. His wife Ingmarie, who was running the laboratory, mentions in Thor Nilsen that it was not always fun for her to have her husband as the boss. ‘He treated me with a bit harder hands,’ she says. When Thor was holding a course away from Piediluco, everyone would relax and slack when he was not around. ‘All of us went to dinner in the evenings, […]. Because we were all foreigners even the Italians came from distant Napoli, Milano and Bari, we ended up talking our own language, called Piedilucish. It was a little bit from Norwegian, a little bit from Swedish, from Napoli, Padua, from American, English, Polish…”, Ingmarie says.

Ingmarie and Thor Nilsen with Glocky in Labro, overlooking the lake at Piediluco. 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 ban on the U.S. athletes to travel. 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, which won gold on Lake Casitas.

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

The time in Piediluco was exciting, Ingmarie says, it was the best time in Thor’s life. But happiness can be fleeting. In 1990, Thor and the new incoming Italian president, Gian Antonio Romanini, clashed. For the 1990 World Championships, the Italian federation’s council wanted to change Thor’s selection of rowers and coaches, which up to this point had been up to the Norwegian’s discretion. Thor refused to alter his selection, and he told Ingmarie to pack their bags and get ready to leave Piediluco.

Kris Korzeniowski mentions what an exceptional training centre 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. He would forever be a strong advocate for his Norwegian friend and his coaching.

It was during Thor’s ‘Roman Period’ that FISA realised that the organisation needed a development programme with a universal coaching guide, Be a Coach, which Thor edited with the help of Ted Daigneault and Matt Smith, both from the so-called Piediluco faculty. Material came from different coaches, who had met in Ratzeburg at the rowing academy there. More manuals were published over the next 10 years.

Thomi Keller and his council were aware that FISA 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. The International Rowing Federation was very successful in the 1990s to get Asian, African and South American countries to join the organisation by including lightweight classes in the Olympics. This thanks to Matt Smith, who was promoted to development director at FISA. He spent several months travelling around 29 countries to promote rowing in the beginning of his tenure.

Three decades later, only the men’s and women’s lightweight double sculls remain in the Olympic rowing programme. This after FISA dropped the men’s lightweight four to be able to add the women’s heavyweight four. For the 2020/21 Olympic Games, rowing has reached gender equality between men and women with seven boat classes each. During the last year, discussions have taken place to include coastal rowing as an Olympic sport at the 2024 Paris games.

Thor Nilsen’s 85th birthday in Rome; l to r: Ingmarie Nilsen, Matt Smith, Ambra Di Miceli, Teresa Postiglione, Gianni Postiglione and Thor. Photo from “Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach”.

As the book title suggests, Thor 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 Part II, which will be published tomorrow, Göran will pay special attention to Sweden in the chapter called the “European Theatre” in Chris Dodd’s Thor Nilsen: Rowing Global Coach.

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