Thor Nilsen: The Great God and the Big Teacher – Part II

Thor Nilsen

17 July 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn continues his review of Chris Dodd’s Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach. In this part, Göran writes about Thor Nilsen in Sweden, where he interacted with Thor and came to play a part in the Norwegian’s quest to become the head of the Swedish Rowing Association.

In the 1960s, both Norway and Sweden were small rowing nations. It had been the custom in many countries that it was club crews that represented the country at the European Championships and the Olympics. 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’.

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.

For the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, the Swedish Olympic Rowing Committee had hired an Englishman to coach the Swedes. Jack Farrell, of London RC, selected the best oarsmen he could find to row in the coxed inrigger four and the eight. Farrell and the rowers formed a new club for the Olympics, Roddklubben af 1912, to be able to row as a ‘club’. Farrell’s Swedish eight was beaten by New College in the quarterfinal, while the Swedes took a silver medal in the inrigger. After the games, Roddklubben af 1912 was dissolved. Some of the rowers joined Malmö Roddklubb, which had had the best oarsman in the inrigger and the eight. Trained by Farrell, the club took several Swedish Championships and Nordic Championships in the eight in the 1910s. Nordic experts predicted that the Malmö eight would have reached the final in the Grand at Henley had they gone to England. This was never tested due to the outbreak of the First World War.

After the Second World War, the Swedes approached the American boat builder George Pocock at the 1948 Olympic rowing at Henley to ask him if he could recommend a coach for Sweden’s national team. Pocock gave them a name – Gösta ‘Gus’ Eriksen, whose parents came from Åland, a Finnish island in the Baltic Sea that is Swedish speaking. Eriksen had rowed at University of Washington for Al Ulbrickson. Eriksen was one of the boys who tried but never made it to the 1936 ‘Boys in the Boat’ crew. At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, the Swedes made direct contact with Eriksen, who was in Finland to watch the rowing and visit relatives. He took a break from his coaching job at Syracuse University in 1953 to inspect the rowers in Sweden. ‘[Eriksen] soon realised that Sweden had some good oarsmen but no good crews,’ Chris Dodd writes in Thor Nilsen: Rowing’s Global Coach.

Gösta ‘Gus’ Eriksen. Photo: “Svensk Rodd” archives.

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 came back the following year to continue to train the crews, and in 1955, they founded the new club, RK Three Towns (official club in 1956). The crews from Three Towns took two silver medals in the coxed four and eight at the 1955 European Championships. The eight reached but lost the final in the Grand at Henley in 1956. At the Olympic rowing at Ballarat, the Swedish 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.

Despite RK Three Towns and Eriksen’s success, the Swedish rowing establishment was not pleased: combining rowers from different clubs, however successful the crews turned out to be, was not how you did it in Sweden in the 1950s.

Rowing at regattas in Scandinavia at this time, Thor must have come across or at least heard of Eriksen and his Three Towners. At the end of the 1960s, Thor was finally successful at combining crews with rowers from different clubs in Norway.

Already as a junior rower in Sweden in the 1970s, I became aware of Thor. Not that I had anything to do with him then, nor had he with me. He was pointed out to us juniors at regattas in Sweden or Denmark as The Coach. We boys – there were no girls or women at my club when I was a junior – knew that if you were trained by Thor, then you were going somewhere in the rowing world, far beyond the borders of Sweden and Scandinavia. At regattas, we got a glimpse of Thor, together with Alf and Frank and Karppinen (why did we never call him Pertti?) and ‘Hasse’, the Swedish sculling star Hans Svensson, who always came in second if Karppinen was in the same race.

Pertti Karppinen, 1976

It was first in the 1990s I came to interact with Thor, 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, I resigned as the president of my club to concentrate on my writing for the magazine and for what I hoped would be a time of well-needed rest. It was not to be. I was immediately elected to the election committee of the board of the Swedish Rowing Association together with Per. Of all the positions I had had in the Swedish rowing community throughout the years, this proved to be one of the toughest. It seemed no one wanted to be involved in rowing in Sweden on the highest level.

A suggestion for a new president of the association came from the rowing club in Strömstad, a town close to the Norwegian border where the Nilsens, after a short stint in Switzerland, had settled 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 Strömstad, 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 – besides Per and me, Lars-Åke Pejder, a nice fellow who rowed in church boats up in the province of Dalarna (Dalecarlia) – believed that Thor was a splendid name as the association’s new chairman. Hopefully, Thor, with all his global contacts, would push Swedish rowing into the international spotlight and allow the Swedish rowers to play on the same waters as the world’s best.

Many of the clubs in Sweden, however, did not agree.

Sending our suggestion of Thor as the new chairman to the clubs and districts, almost immediately, Lars-Åke, Per and I were named the worst election committee the Swedish Rowing Association had ever had. Nevertheless, we stuck with our candidate.

In December 1994, the Swedish Rowing Association was holding its annual meeting at the newly built Strömstads Gymnaisum, which was a day and boarding secondary school/high school in Strömstad. Thor had been involved in creating a special rowing programme at the school for pupils who were junior rowers. The programme was run by one of Sweden’s best rowers, Fredrik Hultén, a member of the local rowing club. At the meeting, which was poorly attended, Thor was elected chairman of the association for the year of 1995.

Thor had big plans for Swedish rowing, which he expressed in Svensk Rodd. Many of the clubs – most of which had not been at the annual meeting in Strömstad to oppose the election of Thor as chairman – were still unhappy with the Norwegian at the top.

Being 1995, the year before the Olympic Games in Atlanta, 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 medal hopes for Henrik Nilsson, Fredrik Hultén, Pontus Ek and Johan Flodin, who were competing in the Swedish quad, coached by Thor, and for Mattias Tichy and Anders Christensson in the 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.

‘It would have been nice with a medal’ – “Svensk Rodd”, August 1996.

Though having three crews in Olympic finals was the best result Swedish rowing had had for many years, it was a disappointment, also for Thor, who had been elected chairman for a second year. ‘We are pleased, but it would have been nice with a medal,’ Thor told me in an interview for Svensk Rodd.

But it did not end there. Thor, who was at the Olympics, was heavily criticised 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 Thor should immediately leave as chairman. Of course, Thor ignored Ludl’s demand and said that Ludl was the last person with whom he would discuss a resignation.

It must be explained that the duo Brandin/Ludl had for a very long time been at odds with the entire Rowing Sweden. And when it came to Thor, Ludl whispered very 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. After all, it was Ludl who spread the rumours.

But, in the end, Fredrik Ludl was proven to be right. Thor did not go for a third year as chairman. Thor realised that ‘the Swedish way was not his way,’ as Chris 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. Then, what happened next?

The next chairman elected for the year 1997 was a colonel in the Swedish Air Force with no experience in rowing. With Thor’s help, I ended up at the FISA headquarters in Lausanne for a week to help produce the two last issues of FISA Coach, which were later followed by another publication, Chris Dodd’s World Rowing magazine. I spent a fabulous week in Lausanne. A Swedish friend of mine had some months earlier moved to a small village outside Lausanne, and in the late afternoons and evenings, she showed me around town. During a working lunch with Matt Smith who, one year earlier, had been appointed new executive director of FISA after John Boultbee went back to his native Australia, I interviewed him for Svensk Rodd.

My one and a half-page piece appeared in the June issue of the Swedish rowing magazine, sharing space with the sad news that Fredrik Hultén, age 30, had died after his car had collided with a moose. Henrik Nilsson went to study at Oxford University in the autumn of 1997 and became the first Swede to row in the Boat Race, in 1998 and 1999.

Matt Smith interviewed in “Svensk Rodd” – June 1997.

A third member of the Swedish 1996 Olympic quad, Johan Flodin – who will go down in Swedish rowing history as being a member of the first Swedish crew to win at Henley (1992 Queen Mother Challenge Cup) – would make a mark as an eminent coach. Johan came to coach a 16-year-old who had enrolled at Strömstads Gymnasium. Her name was Frida Svensson, and while Johan was her more ‘hands-on coach, […] Thor was always on the side, filling in when Johan was away,’ Chris writes. Their hard work paid off well – Frida won the world title in the single sculls in Karapiro, New Zealand, in 2010. Johan Flodin is now Norway’s national coach and acknowledge in Chris’s book Thor’s influence on his coaching philosophy.

Johan Flodin and Frida Svensson

Maria Brandin was back on the medal podium at the 1997 worlds when she took a bronze medal in the single sculls. A bronze also went to Sweden’s Kristina Knejp in the lightweight single.

Chapter 9 in Thor Nilsen, ”The European Theatre”, shows Thor’s enormous impact on rowing in Europe. Some of the smaller rowing nations, like Greece, Ireland and Norway, still see the ‘Thor effect’ today. Chris writes that even if Thor 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,’ Chris writes. And this is true.

Writing this chapter about Thor in Sweden, Chris was in contact with me, and that is why I am a footnote of a footnote in Thor’s life in Scandinavia. Why did the Norwegian coach – one of the best ones in the world – meet such resistance and, to a degree, failed in his attempt to lift Swedish rowing out of its slumber? In Thor Nilsen, I suggest that Jantelagen (the ‘Law of Jante’) is partly to be blamed. Jantelagen is a mythical law, a cultural norm that can be found in the Scandinavian countries. This code of conduct comes from the fictious town of Jante in the ironic novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933) by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sanemose. Jantelagen means not seeing yourself as above anyone else, not feeling special and not bragging about your accomplishments. Sanemose had 10 rules written down in his novel. Although fictional, Jantelagen is still embedded in the Scandinavian culture and life of today. (In November 2018, Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård explained the Law of Jante on American TV in The Late Show with host Stephen Colbert, see here.)

Aksel Sanemose’s 10 rules of Jante – ‘You’re not to think you are….’

It can also be added that my American wife, Mrs B., unrewardingly has tried to beat Jante out of me for more than 20 years.

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

Here are some other voices on Thor:

‘He emphasised that all negative work needs to be left out. All in all, rowing at its best is beautiful harmonious and continuous movement.’ – Pertti Kappinen.

‘He took the lead in the development programme and used Piediluco as its centre. Within the council, he was very forceful and didn’t like anyone who would stand up to him, but he was very strong and fair.’ – John Boultbee.

‘Speaking in depth and breadth, he was completely open and generous about sharing his knowledge.’ – Tricia Smith.

‘Whatever he thought, whatever he was or was not interested in, Thor gave help to anyone who asked for it.’ – Penny Chuter.

‘We are where we are because he is one of the chief builders […] The development programme was, is, and will remain a key priority, because it is essential that we develop and grow our community.’ – Jean-Christophe Rolland.

‘Trust is the catalyst that makes the development programme work. You must share everything and pass on what you learn. Thor has a strong compass of teamwork, of giving something back, which he takes to extremes.’ – Sheila Stephens.

Chris wraps up his book about the Norwegian by writing: ‘[Thor] 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.’

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

Chris Dodd has done it again, written another brilliant tale about rowing, a rower and a coach. Thor Nilsen is well-written and entertaining and fills its purpose of shining light on a man who deserves to be in the spotlight. It can be said that never have so many in the rowing world had so much to thank one man for. However, I would like to tip my rowing cap in two directions: thank you, Thor and Chris!

One comment

  1. In your main photo of Thor he bears an uncanny resemblance to that other coaching giant, different sport, same results, Sir Alex Ferguson.

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