Success breeds success for an Austrian rowing renaissance
Nestled in Europe’s mainland is a small landlocked nation that eight and a half million people call their home. Boasting high mountains, diverse terrain and cold winter weather conditions, Austria, in sport, makes a name for itself mostly in those related to snow and ice.
However, take a look at the results from the 2013 World Rowing regattas and it is clear to see that Austrians can make boats move fast enough to be ranked amongst the world’s best.
The end of the last millennium was the hay-day of Austrian rowing. Rowing was the country’s top performing summer Olympic sport and the men’s quad was the reason behind this. Between the Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 Olympic Games the quad established themselves as one of the world’s top crews. Horst Nussbaumer and Norbert Lambing contributed to the speed of this boat and today they are two of the main contributors towards Austria’s increasingly notable presence at World Rowing regattas.
After long international careers, Nussbaumber and Lambing took a step back from rowing but it wasn’t that long before they found themselves deep in the action again. In 2011 Lambing took up his role as Austrian Rowing’s sport director. This makes him responsible for everything to do with supporting the national team and head coach.
Two years later three-time Olympian Nussbaumer was unanimously voted in as the President of the Austrian Rowing Federation and he came to the prestigious role with a plan; a vision for his sport that was guided by his experience as an athlete. The team mates from the quad were now reunited and would again work towards a shared goal.
After an analysis of Austrian rowing over the past two Olympiads, a new strategic plan was created that would hopefully see greater success for the nation’s rowers. “We did not do this by looking to other nations’ programmes,” Lambing explains, “because other nations have a different culture, a different way of thinking, when it comes to sport. As former athletes, we see the goal and there is a strong, straight drive to achieve this.”
Their strategy has been built around the bringing together of the three main Austrian rowing regions of Upper Austria, Carinthia and Vienna. Nussbaumber says that in their analysis they found that the strength of rowing in each of these regions did not translate into success of the national team.
“They did an excellent job (within their regions) but they didn’t think of working together and I think that because Austria is such a small country, with few resources for rowing, we have to bundle everything and try to make one good Austrian team and not just good regional teams,” Nussbaumer explains. “It’s is so obvious but that is what happened in the last eight years, and that is why it is quite easy to make it better; by bringing everyone together.” Three regional coaches have been appointed under the head coach to ensure the same goals are being worked towards and that one message is transcending through the ranks of the sport.
As former athletes, Nussbaumer and Lambing are trusted in their philosophy for success by both athletes and those involved with the sport from club level up. “They know that we are not here for personal gain and that we don’t want to claim that we have won the medals,” says Lambing. Having the support of the wider Austrian sporting community is something that Nussbaumer considers key in his role as President..
In 2013 there has been a visible increase in the number of red and white striped oars seen coming down the course at all levels. With medals at European, junior and senior levels, has the impact of the former oarsmen’s strategy been that quick? It seems like it. “We have been putting athletes into better crews, we are mixing crews and it’s really good,” Nussbaumer says. Lambing says that the athletes in these crews are long-term development projects that will hopefully go on to achieve results at the senior level.
Nussbaumer and Lambing are very much aware that their attention is needed at more than just the top level of the sport if their strategy is to develop a sustainable base for the sport. The federation has been involved in developing a schools recruitment programme to help drive new junior rowers to their local clubs. Selling the sport to students with so much choice as to how they spend their free time is done by more than promoting rowing as just a sport; along with that they sell the values that go alongside it.
“Joining a rowing club is a great experience socially,” Lambing explains, “you grow with your club mates, you grow within the system, developing great life skills. Rowing is one of the hardest sports in the world; after rowing 2,000m all you get is the pride of holding a medal and no money like in other sports, so this is even an interesting life skill for parents to encourage their kids to grow up learning. Rowing is like an education within a sport,” Lambing adds. Nussbaumer explains that, “with rowing they have the opportunity to be involved in a sport that is really international and I think it’s easier to make your way to the top because our support is really great. I think if you are young, love outdoor sports and have a certain love of water then rowing is the sport for you.”
For those who have already chosen rowing as their path in sporting life, what support systems are in place? According to Lambing, 80 per cent of Austria’s full-time rowers are in the army where they receive support but their ambition aims to grow the number of full-time rowers is up against a challenge with the system too. “There are only about 120 sports specific army places,” Lambing explains, “and over half of them go to winter sports. We hope that with the better results achieved by our rowers, the more places we will have available to us.” The rest of the squad’s athletes are students and their education is strongly encouraged by the federation. Lambing recalls how his former coach, Thor Nilsen once told him, “I do not coach anyone who isn’t doing something educational on the side.”
It may be three years away, but naturally the Rio 2016 Olympic Games are on the radar of those at the helm of Austria’s rowing future. “As a small federation, we hope to have three or four boats there,” Nussbaumer says. “While it might be the goal of federations like Germany to medal in every one of the Olympic boat classes, we know that is not possible for us, so we will put our best (efforts) into these boats, but for us it is step by step. Our crews are all quite young so I think that our future is optimistic.”
Austria will compete in five boat classes at the 2013 World Rowing Championships, beginning on 25 August in Chungju, Korea. View the entries by federation here.