Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Monday, January 9, 2012

Olaf Tufte: “You Can Always Hear The Boat Sing A Little More...”

Olaf teaches Thomas everything he knows – in 20 minutes. Harald looks on.

HTBS’s Tim Koch’s Auriol Kensington Rowing Club had some foreign celebrities visiting the club last Saturday, Tim writes...

It is not often that a group of young master rowers from a middle ranking rowing club get to race against one of the great scullers of the day. It is even less often that they beat him. However, this is what happened at Auriol Kensington Rowing Club in Hammersmith, London, on Saturday 7 January. The circumstance, as you may have already guessed, were fairly unusual.

Team Norway: Bjørn, Harald, Thomas, and Olaf.

One of the most popular television shows in Norway is Senkveld med Thomas og Harald (‘Late night with Thomas and Harald’). In-between their studio interviews they show recordings of various ‘challenges’ that the two presenters have undertaken. They decided that one of these should be a Norwegian rowing crew racing a British crew on the Thames. To this end they recruited the finest sculler in Norway and, indeed, the world, Olaf Tufte. Olaf has been the reigning Olympic champion since he won the single sculls in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. He also won the World Championships in 2001 and 2003. A good start. They then got Bjørn Jostein Singstad, a young rower with the Norwegian National Squad. Not bad. Unfortunately, the next two members of the quadruple scull were Thomas and Harald themselves. Neither of them had ever rowed. They had no time to learn. Harald had just broken his arm. However, this was not a problem for the television people as, of course, the sole object of the exercise was to make amusing TV for a non-rowing audience. Thus Thomas got about 40 minutes of training, half on land and half on water. He sat at ‘3’ behind Olaf, who was at stroke. Bjørn sat at bow. Harald, one arm in a sling, sat at ‘2’, without any oars but with a small Norwegian flag to wave in encouragement. Umpire Martin Gill also had to do a lot of flag waving at the start but the race soon settled down and the result, perhaps not surprisingly, was a win for Ali Boileau, Hugh Mackworth-Praed, Harry Powell, and Nick Hubbard of ‘Team Britain’. I suspect that, in the future, they will tell their grandchildren of the day that they beat Olaf Tufte - but without going into the details. I know that I would.

The finish: Team GB beats Team Norway.

Team Norway, umpire and safety boat return from the finish.

I, of course, had to take advantage of having a great Olympian in the Auriol Kensington clubhouse. Firstly, I photographed the possible 2012 Olympic sculling champion under a picture of the 1912 winner (Kensington Rowing Club’s Wally Kinnear). Secondly, I asked Olaf for an interview - which he kindly gave.

The 1912 Champion and the 2012(?) Champion.

What is your form like at the start of the Olympic year?
I think that I am well prepared. In the winter, I do a lot of ergs and I feel that I am on the right track.

Are you defiantly in the single for the 2012 Olympics?
Nothing is ever definite in rowing but that is what I am aiming for and yes, at the moment, I am.

After winning two Olympic titles, what keep you motivated?
You can always be a little bit better, you can always hear the boat sing a little bit more, a little bit longer..... What keeps me in rowing is that it is a big happy family and the best thing I know is to compete against my good friends...... The one who is going to win in London will be better than the one who won in Beijing and Athens and so on... So as long as you think that you can be better than you were, that is the motivation.

Can you win a third Olympic title?
(Olaf fixes me with a steely gaze. I feel a little nervous...)
If I thought that I couldn’t, I would not be here.

You won the Olympic title for a second time in 2008 despite not winning much in the preceding years. Will it be the same in 2012?
True, I have not won much since Beijing. I think the reason for that is that I have been doing a lot of other stuff outside of rowing.... But in the approach to the Olympics...... I have cleared away anything that takes away my energy.... I am focusing more and more on the rowing and everything that comes with it, I am not known for resting..... I think that I am doing some good things now and I have an OK plan but in the end we will see if it is good enough.

Tell me more about your plan.
I am not doing anything very different to what I have done, I am actually going back to the things that I did in 2008. I have been doing more ergs during the winter like I did in '08 which was not too bad a choice. Then I will probably do more speed work than I have done. I have a new coach (Carsten Hassing*). He is more about higher rating, not low rate and hard push, so we fight a little bit against each other, I want to do the heavy stroke and he wants a high rate. So with that little struggle and fight I hope we will get the best out of both of them and it will bring me even closer to success.

Who do you think are the scullers to beat in 2012?

OK...., and then.....?
... It’s Mahé (Drysdale, NZ, third in Beijing)... Ondřej (Synek, Czech, second in Beijing) ... Alan (Campbell, Britain, fifth in Beijing) will of course be a big one on his home course.., you never know about Marcel Hacker... then you have the Swede, Lassi (Karonen) but I don’t think he will take the medals, the others are too strong. You have some stars coming up, you have the Azerbaijan guy (Aleksandr Aleksandrov)..., the Cuban (Angel Fournier)... both trying to fight their way into the finals.

Excuse the slightly parochial question but how strong do you think Britain’s Alan Campbell is?
If he is capable of winning this should be his year. The pressure of competing on his home ground will be a big challenge for him, even if he says it is not a problem, it will always be that way. We will have to see if he can turn that pressure into energy. But he is a great sculler, really fast, really strong, so he is one of the guys you have to watch out for.

Olaf, thank you very much and good luck in the Olympics.

If you want to see a great example of Olaf’s ability to put it all together when it really counts (and at the last minute), look at the penultimate 250 metres of the Athens final:

Olaf also mentions that he and his coach, Carsten Hassing, who successfully has coached parts of the Canadian National Team, have discussed the possibility of combining other rowing philosophies, such as higher stroke ratings, with the proven Norwegian technique.

Remember, he is going for his third Olympic title and, if successful, he would be the first single sculler to do this since the great Finn, Pertti Karppinen won in 1976, 1980, and 1984. Vyacheslav Ivanov of the USSR is the only other sculler to do this (1956, 1960, and 1964).

Let’s hope Olaf’s 2012 final is more successful that this outing:

(Olaf: “It can happen to the best…”)

See also AK News! & "Tufte On The Thames", 25 April, 2012.
* Corrections were made to this post on Thursday, 12 January, 2011.


  1. Thank you Tim ! Great report tweeted by @worldrowing, @martingough22, @explorerowing, and more... I am glad HTBS readers can also follow the news of Auriol Kensington Rowing Club @akrowing ;)

  2. Thank you Hélène. I do not ‘tweet’ myself and this is the first time that I have generated any. It was great day but very hard work. A lot of ‘health and safety’ paperwork was generated and the club was invaded by a dozen members of the production crew with all their technical equipment and their personal luggage for a two week trip around Europe filming other ‘challenges’. These include kissing in Paris, wrestling in Istanbul and jousting in Birmingham (England). It took me a little time to realise it, but Olaf is a very funny chap. He also gave me an insight into the competitiveness that is needed to be a champion. Even for a ‘joke’ race, he was very keen to make minor technical adjustments to his boat, he was not happy that it was ‘only’ an 85 kg quad, and he scolded me for having dirt in the runners of the sliding seats.