The 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Part 3: The Top 10

The top 10 best rowing coaches, including guess who (Photo © Iain Weir / Rowing Photography)

It's time for the third and final part of our 3-part series on the best of the best in the rowing coaching ranks. These coaches not only command respect based on performance, but have also shown the ability to adapt to new circumstances, build dynasties, and ultimately help shape the trajectory of rowing as a sport. Honestly, it would be easy to extend this series into 10 more posts... But we wouldn't do that to you.

As we've said before, the hope is that the following may serve to educate and spark discussion, as both an appreciation of history and of the coaching craft.

Also note: As we stated in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, there are few women in this list, but that is a reflection of a general underrepresentation of women in the head coaching ranks in our sport—and indeed (as has been well documented) a growing number of NCAA sports in the United States.

10. Nicolae Gioga

How better to start a background on Romanian coach Nicolae Gioga than with a quote from the man himself (from this piece in the The Indian Express)?

"'I've had one Olympics with 2 gold medals (Atlanta 1996, Romanian women's eight & lightweight double sculls), and another with 3 golds (Sydney, Romania women's encore in [the eight] and [lightweight double], plus coxless pair). Now my ambition is to win 4 gold medals,' he says." 
"'2, 3, 4. Get it?' he starts grandly, before adding wickedly, 'The 4 might not happen with India.' He adds realistically though, 'but I'm known to deliver gold medals, and I'm going to do everything to help India get those at Asian Games next year as a start.'"

He's never lacked for confidence, and that swagger, or perhaps self-assuredness has made him the subject of controversy at times. Now, he's entering a new phase of his career, looking to guide the Rowing Federation of India into a new age—but there's no doubt that his pedigree places him among the top coaches in the history of our sport.

Gioga coached some of the most successful women's Olympic teams ever, and, as he mentions above, managed no less than three gold medals at a single Olympics, with Romanian phenoms Elisabeta Lipa, Georgeta Andrunache, and Viorica Susanu on board the women's eight—the latter two doubled-up in the pair to win gold in a thrilling race (here's U.S. Olympic champion Esther Lofgren's take on it).

Not only that, but the Romanians won each of the world championships in the women's eight between the Games in Atlanta and the Sydney Olympics—something that, at the time, had never been done before. So, when he says "I'm known to deliver gold medals," he's not kidding.

Gioga was named International Coach of the Year by The Independent Rowing News in 2000, following his second straight Olympic success, where he is quoted as saying of his team's performance at the Olympics, "It's not so simple. It's not so easy. It's no so difficult."

9. Noel Donaldson

Architect of the 'Oarsome Foursome' (maybe the best nickname for a crew in the history of rowing), Australian coach Noel Donaldson has had the Midas touch throughout his career. The coxless four that earned the Aussies that moniker won gold at every world championship and Olympic Games from 1990-1996, and the athletes from that era continued to be some of the top names in the sport all the way through the Games in London—indeed, the legendary Drew Ginn first raced with the Aussie men's four in 1995, winning gold in Atlanta the next year (Ginn would again win gold in 2004 and 2008 in the men's pair, and then silver in the coxless four in 2012, along with Josh Dunkley-Smith).

From The New Zealand Herald:

"Donaldson's been to six Games, coaching at four and directing the wider team at two. He coached the men's 'Oarsome Foursome' to gold at Barcelona and Atlanta, and the men's pair to bronze at Sydney. He took the men's eight to sixth in London. 
The respect his athletes have for him is legendary. Oarsome Foursome stroke James Tomkins described Donaldson as the most influential person in his career, having guided him through school and to double Olympic glory."

In 2013, Donaldson left Rowing Australia to take a coaching role with Rowing New Zealand, guiding the men's sweep squad. By then, the Kiwi Pair had already etched their names into the record books, with an undefeated quadrennial and gold in London (guided by Dick Tonks—of him, more below), but if anything, the Kiwi Pair got even better: Not only did they enjoy a second straight undefeated quadrennial ending in Olympic gold, they also won double gold at the 2014 world championships in the straight pair and the coxed pair (setting the World Best Time in the latter—a 6:33.26—despite doubling up).

In addition to the Kiwi Pair, Donaldson's men's sweep program also boasted back-to-back gold medals in the U23 men's eight in 2013 and 2014. Read his PowerPoint presentation for FISA on "Key Performance Elements" here.

8. Karl Adam

Germany's Karl Adam is among the giants, and most important innovators, of our sport—even though, rather amazingly, he never actually competed as an oarsman. Adam was a boxer and hammer thrower, who earned his living by teaching math(s), physics, and gymnastics at Ratzeburg High School. Having taken a late interest in rowing, he founded the rowing club in Ratzeburg, and served as a sculling coach with the German Olympic Team at the Games in 1956. As it turned out, it was a seminal moment, not only for Adam, but for rowing itself. From "How they row in Ratzeburg," Sports Illustrated (1963):

"Upset by a German debacle, he returned to Ratzeburg full of revolutionary ideas to improve matters. During the winter Adam set his aspiring oarsmen to a strenuous program of gymnastics, running and weight lifting. (German crews never practice in tanks in the winter as many Americans do.) In spring and summer they rowed—but only now and then in the big shells. Since it was difficult to get eight men together at the same time, they generally practiced in sculls. In the light, extremely narrow boats, Dr. Adam reasoned, oarsmen get a better feel of the water. Besides, it is easier for the coach to determine who the strongest rowers are simply by pitting them in races against each other."

His appreciation for 'boat feel' echoed that of Steve Fairbairn, and his attention to detail and innovative approach to training quickly helped build Germany into a rowing powerhouse. Again, quoting Sports Illustrated:

"Ratzeburg's coach also found, by experimentation, a kind of magic number for applying this system to whip his rowers into condition for best performance over 2,000 meters—the Olympic and international championship distance for eight-oared crews. 
The magic number lies somewhere between 500 and 600 meters. After five days of sculling, Adam takes his eight best rowers, gives them big sweeps in place of their sculls and puts them in a shell. From a racing start, he has them tug away as fast as they can for the magic distance. They then paddle back to the starting point, rowing one-handed and chatting together if they wish. Reaching the start, they once again drive down the course. They do this from six to eight times, trying hard to reach the finish line in exactly the same number of seconds (give or take half a second) each time they row. If they can do this, say eight times in a single afternoon, reasons Dr. Adam, they can row 2,000 meters in competition at the extremely high, extremely smooth stroke their coach has settled on as necessary to demoralize all opponents."

Yes, he basically invented the 6x500m workout that is now a standard predictor for 2,000-meter performance. Also, if you're familiar with the term "German" (or, more commonly in the U.S., "bucket" or "tandem") rigging in the eight—it was originally referred to as the "Ratzeburg rig." As our readers will surely know, the purpose of that rig was to eliminate the so-called 'wiggle' from the competing forces of port and starboard oars. (Remember—Adam made his living teaching mathematics and physics.)

You can watch the German eight, with the Ratzeburg rig, win the gold medal at the Rome Games (at their characteristically very high stroke rate) in the above video, starting at 2:33. For the German speakers (or at least readers) in the audience, there's a website, "Karl Adam: Vater des Deutschlandachters," with further background and photos, here.

7. Thor Nilsen

One of the most important and influential coaches in our sport, Nilsen's fingerprints are everywhere in elite rowing. An Olympian as an athlete, Nilsen learned from, and worked with, a laundry list of the world's foremost coaches, including Harry Mahon (mentioned in Part 2 of this series) and Karl Adam. From FISA’s post on his retirement from the role of Director of Development:

"Medals won by athletes that Nilsen coached tally up to about 40 gold medals at the World Championship level and eight Olympic gold medals." 

Nilsen began his coaching career at the club level in Norway, but also served as technical director for the Spanish and Italian rowing federations, working with the likes of three-time Olympic gold medalist Agostino Abbagnale, and helping engineer a dominant decade in the 1980s for the Italian lightweight men's squad. In all, Nilsen served as head coach for four different countries before taking over the role of Director of Development at FISA. Again, quoting from FISA:

"Nilsen has received many accolades including the FISA Distinguished Service to Rowing Award in 2003. Then in 2009 received from the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) highest award, the Olympic Order. The award submission stated, 'Nilsen is a man of great ethical stature. His generosity is boundless.'"

Rather remarkably for a competitive person, it was perhaps Nilsen's generosity that we owe for the current status that rowing enjoys at the Olympic Games, more so than any work with one particular crew or even federation. The 'Modern Orthodox' technique ("strong initial leg drive, unifying back swing, late arm break, back and arms finishing together to produce strong, consistent acceleration all the way to the send at the finish," from page 8 of the pdf "The Era of Polarization" linked above) that Nilsen and others used to great success also made its way around the world to small and fledgling programs, helping these federations—like Greece and Ireland—develop and compete at the highest level.

The development of the sport on a global level is certainly ongoing, but as Nilsen and FISA understand, it's key to maintaining good standing within the Olympic movement, and his efforts have had no small part in so doing.

6. Giuseppe La Mura

One of the principal architects of the juggernaut Italian Rowing Federation in its heyday from the 1980s to the Games in Sydney, La Mura recruited and Abbagnales as juniors, guiding the Giuseppe and Carmine Abbagnale to gold at two Olympics and silver in Barcelona, and Agostino Abbagnale to three Olympic golds in Seoul, Atlanta, and Sydney. Quoting Ken Shulman of The New York Times:

"Given their size, La Mura knew that his nephews could never match the power of world's best pairs, who commonly average 6-4 and 220 pounds. They would have to beat them in speed, by lengthening their stroke, and by taking more strokes per minute than their opponents and somehow maintaining that pace for seven agonizing minutes over 2,000 meters." 

(Note: You should read the above article from the NY Times—it's fascinating.)

Given all his international success in the late 20th century, it's easy to see why Italian rowing once again placed La Mura (who had stepped away from his role with the Italian national team after taking three bronze medals in Athens) in charge after a disappointing medal haul in London. While Italy managed just two bronze medals in Rio, the La Mura effect was evident last year in Sarasota, where Italy topped the medal table with a total of nine—yes, nine (three gold, three silver, and three bronze).

5. Tom Terhaar

Tom Terhaar does one thing: win. Terhaar's U.S. women's squad has been without question the most talented and competitive in the sport of rowing. Case in point: they took their 11th straight victory in the women's eight in Rio, and their third straight Olympic gold medal. At this point, generations of rowers have been through Terhaar's system, and he has won gold nearly every year while constantly changing the lineup, bringing in new talent and allowing it to develop alongside veteran leadership. From a piece on Terhaar by Juliet Macur of The New York Times (2015):

"Until this women's crew came around, no other national rowing team had won 10 major titles in a row in any discipline, much less the eight, the sport's marquee event. The team with the next-best record was the East German quadruple sculls of the 1970s and '80s, with nine consecutive victories in an era of rampant steroid abuse in that Eastern bloc nation."

Steroid comments aside, gold in Rio only extended that streak, which may never be equalled, let alone broken. Still, Terhaar keeps it in perspective—from the same piece quoted above:

"'Oh, no, it's not me, it's the talent pool,' Terhaar said as we sat in the coach's motorboat watching his rowers glide by. 'The sport is exploding. It's just incredible how big it is now and how many great athletes we're getting.'"

Title IX and the NCAA have meant that women's rowing has never been more popular, and that certainly doesn't hurt. But, like this article from New York Magazine says:

"...he's undeniably been the architect of a system that rivals Bill Belichick's New England Patriots or Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs for consistency and results, despite a regular turnover in personnel."

Terhaar came in and transformed the training at the highest level, and has since created such a strong culture around U.S. women's rowing that the athletes often refer to the team and the system as a 'machine.' That machine is still rolling, and despite what some on the outside might say about the U.S. women's performance at Sarasota last year, the depth and competitive level look very good for the long haul, with a host of appearances in the finals and a lot of youth on the squad.

4. Dick Tonks

Newly appointed Rowing Canada men's coach Dick Tonks has developed and guided some of the most talented and successful athletes in our sport. Exemplum gratis: Mahé Drysdale—among the most decorated single scullers in modern memory—entrusted his training to Tonks despite some controversy with the Rowing New Zealand leadership in the run-up to Rio, and it paid golden dividends.

But Drysdale isn't the first single sculler Tonks coached to Olympic gold—Tonks helped Rob Waddell reach the top of the podium in the men's single in Sydney before even becoming a full-time coach. From the official website of Rowing Canada Aviron:

"Tonks has also been awarded World Rowing 'Coach of the Year' at the World Rowing Annual Awards three times—2005, 2010 and 2012. Dick is currently the only person to have won the award more than once."

He was also instrumental in the amazing success of the Evers-Swindell sisters, as well as the Kiwi Pair (discussed above), and the New Zealand Olympic Rowing Team through the 1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Games—a period that saw the Silver Fern rise to become one of the most dominant forces in our sport, rivaled only by Great Britain in terms of top-to-bottom performance.

3. Mike Spracklen

At times polarizing, Mike Spracklen has never ceased to produce outstanding results at the highest level. He began his legendary career with British Rowing, first winning silver with the GB men's double in 1976 at the Montreal Games. He then ended a drought for Britain that extended back to the 1948 Games by coaching the men's four to gold in Los Angeles—a crew that included none other than Steve Redgrave (the Los Angeles Games marked the first of Redgrave's string of five straight Olympic Games where he returned with a gold medal).

If you want to get a sense for just how successful Spracklen has been at the elite level, just look at the table on his Wikipedia page. In short: Spracklen has coached athletes to the Olympic podium at every Games (excluding the 1980 Games in Moscow, which most of the GB team boycotted) from 1976 to 2012.

From a blog post by Olympic silver and bronze medalist Silken Laumann, following the Olympic Regatta in London, 2012:

"This race shows why Mike Spracklen is the greatest rowing coach in the world.  No other coach could take a group of young men, only two who had raced at the Olympic level, and four years later, win a silver medal at the Olympic Games.  Mike knows how to take the rawness of talent and give it form to reveal greatness.  There is so much that goes into winning an Olympic medal of any color; in the eights event, coaching is paramount...Mike is brilliant at creating an environment that attracts promising athletes and keeps the loyalty of those who have already experienced his winning touch.  Once they arrive in Victoria to commit to winning, Mike knows how to get every inch out of every single athlete."

While his most recent coaching stint with Russia has been largely overshadowed by the state-wide doping scandal that caused many of the Russian Federation athletes to miss the Rio Olympics, Spracklen's squad was showing signs of turning things around for Russia as well prior to the ban.

Regardless of where his career wraps up, there's no doubt that Spracklen is certainly among the most effective coaches ever in rowing.

2. Jutta Lau

While women haven't been represented often in the elite coaching ranks, there can be little argument that Jutta Lau is among the best coaches, men and women, in the history of rowing—indeed, she may be the best sculling coach ever. An outstanding athlete prior to her coaching career, Lau won gold twice at the Olympics (1976, 1980) representing East Germany.

And, that excellence translated to the coach's launch—Lau continued to collect hardware after hanging up her own sculls, coaching Kathrin Boron (one of rowing's greatest athletes ever) and racking up at least one gold medal at every Olympic Games from 1984-2004 with Germany.

In Athens, Lau's crews won two golds and two silvers. She was named 'International Coach of the Year' by The Independent Rowing News in 1999, and FISA 'Coach of the Year' in 2001.

Obviously, we would be remiss to not mention the East German doping that was rampant through Lau's athletic career and extended into her coaching career—but even taking that into account, the consistent performance after the fall of the Berlin wall, including the outstanding results in Athens, show her abilities extended well beyond what is a tainted period (unfortunately, one of many, apparently) for Olympic Sport.

1. Jurgen Grobler

The chief coach for what is arguably the world's best team, Jurgen Grobler has coached boats to Olympic medals at every Games since 1972 (with the exception of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, which East Germany boycotted). While he began with the East German team (which may complicate that legacy to some extent), even leaving that aside, what he has done with the British national team is nothing short of astonishing—Grobler's GB crews have earned gold medals at every Olympics since he began with the program, prior to the 1992 Games in Barcelona.

Heading into Rio, his men's eight arrived unbeaten in three years, and took home the gold, as did the GB men's four, marking the fifth consecutive Olympic title for Britain and Grobler in that men's four (stretching back to Sydney)—results that further cement what is, in our opinion, the most impressive coaching legacy in rowing. From The Guardian:

"Britain are the first country to win five consecutive Olympic titles in the men's four, breaking the record managed by East Germany between 1968 and 1980, and by Britain themselves between 1908 and 1932."

And, despite his verging-on-mystical levels of success at the Olympic level, Grobler (like many of his peers) emphasizes that there's no magic, no shortcut, no 'secret sauce.' From a recent feature on Grobler by Alan Oldham for Rowing News:

"'That was a big development moment for me as a coach,' [Grobler] remembers. 'Lots of coaches think that you can somehow or other 'beat the system' in that if you find a way to make the guys row better, then they won't need to be as fit. It just isn't true. It is the highest levels of fitness and the highest levels of technique and highest levels of mental strength that are gaining results.'"

While he has already banked more hardware than most coaches could ever dream of, Grobler is too focused on the moment, the next challenge, and his current athletes to dwell on the past, for better or for worse. From The Telegraph:

"I'm not finished yet,' he says, as he sits in his office, looking out over the calm water of the National Rowing Lake in Caversham. 'I am hoping Lifetime Achievement does not mean this lifetime is over. I intend to carry on. As long as I can help, I will stay. I love the job.'"

We're certainly glad to hear it.

And there you have it! As we said at the outset, the goal is for this series to spark conversation, and appreciate the history of rowing—a legacy that extends as far or further back than most contemporary sports. There's always more to learn, and obviously, there will be disagreement about this list, the order thereof, and others who belong. So, let the discussion continue.

Catch up on the whole series using the label 'best rowing coaches' and let us know your thoughts.



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