Thor Nilsen on his background in rowing

Rowperfect met Thor Nilsen the FISA Development Director at his offices in Seville.  He kindly allowed us to interview him about his experiences and he gave us some great advice for coaches.

How did you get involved in Rowing?

In 1945 after the war, the nearest activity to my home was rowing because I lived in the coast in Norway.  All the kids joined and we started to row in the fjord.   This was our playground.  It became our second home we went there after school.   
For juniors we had style rowing not competitive races – you gained points based on technique.

It wasn’t my cup of tea I wanted to fight – I lied about my age saying I was 18 when I was 16 and a half and I started to race.  We didn’t only do rowing – winter was winter and summer was summer and so we did cross country running in spring and autumn and skiing in winter until the ice went in the beginning of May when the rowing started.  Everyone was involved.  My best performance in skiing was 3rd in my club championship (but 4 of the others were world champions).  Rowing was the summer sport but most of the kids did a bit of everything, ice hockey, boxing, swimming and fencing.  

I got involved in coaching because I was not really happy with the way my own club was working.  I started to lead a bit and disagreed with the coach.  He put an ultimatum down and I responded by deciding to coach.  

I got input from the USA and taught their style which was considered “wrong” at my club but when you are young you think you have all the answers.  But if you are enthusiastic and work hard enough you can still get results.

Slowly I learnt more and recognised that really I didn’t know anything and needed to open my eyes and listed and learn.  We went to Carl Adams and sat at his feet and listened and learnt.  He made a revolution in Germany (he was a world champion in the Student games in Boxing).

We ended up again with the good old fashioned technique.  In the 50s I was using the “Conibear” style and I thought that this was new then but I found out that Conibear died in 1919.  They were still using this style in US until 50s.  I coached and rowed at the same time in the club.  I started to coach in 1955.  In 1964 I was still competing and succeeded in becoming spare man for the crew I was with.   That was my last year in top competition.1952 I was an athlete in Helsinki for the Olympic Games and 1956 I was selected in a pair.  Norway’s rowers boycotted the 1956 Olympics because of the invasion of Hungary.  But the kayakers didn’t boycott and came back with medals.  That was hard to see.  There were such parallels with 1980 and 1984 which was sad.

What were the influences on your coaching?

Technique is there you can’t change basic rowing technique – you put the blade in your water and then feel the resistance. That hasn’t changed.  But style changes.  In FISA we teach plain practical mechanical and bio mechanical principles to teach people how to row. [Thor works with countries new to rowing to develop the sport around the world.]  The person with the biggest influence on me was Ivan van Anier.  He was a cox in the 50s and 60s from Surinam.  He had this enormous “feeling for movement” he was teaching what we can call a ‘natural movement’ all the way round the stroke.  He came to Norway and worked as my assistant.  He changed my view not only to look at rowing as a mechanical thing  but also for the feeling of how to work with the material and really to utilise your body in the most effective way.  His mantra was more a question of feeling than plain theoretical movement.  He had it in his body and could just “see” the feeling. Harry Mahon’s strong side was also in this area.  I knew him from mid 1970s and he also developed this feeling for movement he could see things that other coaches couldn’t see.  

I remember van Anier coaching from the cox seat and he would close his eyes and look down while listening and feeling the boat and he would say “Number 2 you are too late”. And then he would crash the boat because he was not looking where he was going and was concentrating so hard!  

2 thoughts on “Thor Nilsen on his background in rowing

  1. Jim Joy says:

    Hi Rebecca:
    I really enjoyed the brief biography of Thor. In 1980, he introduced me to Ivan Vanier and we became close pals on the bank throughout the 80s and early 90s at the various international regattas. We were kindred souls when it came to discussing and analyzing technique.
    Hope that you are well,

    • Rebecca Caroe says:

      Thor is very generous with his time. When Grant Craies and I first took on Rowperfect, we met with him in Seville and he allowed himself to be interviewed. And he also told us lots of really useful things about the Rowperfect, and how his own rowing coaching career had developed. Truly an inspirational man.

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