“We must never forget why we first became involved in rowing and what it was that attracted us. We must never forget how to bring this to the world.” – Thor Nilsen to the rowing community
Rowing coach extraordinaire Thor Nilsen followed no boundaries and no borders in his lifetime of involvement in rowing.
Nilsen has passed away on his 92nd birthday.
Beginning as a rower at the age of 15, Nilsen represented Norway at the European Rowing Championships and at the 1952 Olympic Games as a 21-year-old. He then moved away from rowing reinventing himself later as a coach and famously taking Norway’s Hansen brothers through to a gold medal in the double at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.
By this stage Nilsen already had an international reputation and was known for encouraging cooperation and the sharing of knowledge and information. His list of countries he helped grew from his first stint outside of Norway at Spain’s rowing centre in Banyoles and on to athletes from around the world.
His influence was powerful and wide including Finland’s great single sculler Pertti Karppinen, China’s Zhang Xiuyun, Steve Redgrave of Great Britain, Canada’s Tricia Smith, Ridardo Ibarra from Argentina, Tony O’Connor of Ireland and many, many, many more.
After Spain, Nilsen moved to the Italian rowing centre in Piediluco as the technical director. Nilsen also used the centre to further his work with World Rowing’s (FISA) development programme, supporting the development of rowing in nations where it was not well-known. This helped increase the number of countries affiliated with World Rowing to grow from 20 to well over 100.
A strong belief in doing what was right, Nilsen clashed with the new Italian rowing president over rower selection. He left Piediloco for Strömstad in Sweden. Athletes followed him there and the small town soon became the hub of rowing activity.
Always insisting on coaching athletes rather than countries, Nilsen’s coaching results stacked up to include more than 30 World Championship gold medals and eight Olympic gold medals. In 2003, he received World Rowing’s Distinguished Service to International Rowing Award.
Nilsen’s biography was penned by Chris Dodd in 2019. The book stated: “The rowing world can be divided into two periods following the Second World War: before Thor Nilsen and after Thor Nilsen.
“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 programme expanded across five continents and cemented the sport’s place in the Olympic Games.”
Tributes have been flooding into the World Rowing office. World Rowing Honorary President Denis Oswald said, “A legend of our sport is gone. So many athletes from so many countries have benefited from his advice and expertise. His contribution to World Rowing has been enormous. It is with deep sadness that we learned that he would no longer be with us, but his memory will remain very much alive in our hearts”.
World Rowing President Jean-Christophe Rolland added : “It is with great sadness and emotion that we learned that a great figure in our sport is now gone. Thor Nielsen’s mark remains immense. We express our condoleances to his family.”