Nilsen transcended national borders to bring rowing to all corners of the world and in the process personally coached hundreds of athletes and influenced thousands more. From Norway, Nilsen became involved in rowing in his home town of Baerum. He proved to be a talent as a rower and then moved to being a skilled coach and rowing administrator.

As an athlete, Nilsen rowed at the European Rowing Championships and the Olympic Games. He also competed in 25 national championships in Norway.

Moving into coaching Nilsen knew no borders. He coached club rowers through to development rowers and elite rowers. These included, his first major success, the famous Olympic champions, the Hansen brothers of Norway in 1976. But he has touched many other Olympic rowers around the world like Spain’s Fernando Climent during his time as technical director of the Spanish federation, Italy’s Davide Tizano and Agostino Abbagnale during his time as Italian federation technical director as well as China’s Xiuyun Zhang, Estonia's Olympic medallist Jueri Jaanson and Ireland's Sam Lynch. Medals won by athletes that Nilsen coached tally up to about 40 gold medals at the World Championship level and eight Olympic gold medals.

With the World Rowing Federation, FISA, Nilsen served for many years as a member and chair of the Competitive Commission on the FISA Council and many years on the FISA executive committee. Nilsen is currently FISA development director and during his time the number of nations that now have rowing programmes has nearly doubled.

"For Thor, rowing embodied the opportunity to challenge his own physical limits. He also saw it as a way to be part of a team sport that required determination, respect, commitment, integrity and always a sense of fair play," says FISA Executive Director Matt Smith who has worked with Nilsen for 30 years. 

Thor Nilsen at the 2002 World Rowing Championships in Seville, Spain © FISA

"As Thor became more involved, first as a club and national coach, then as a team manager and finally an international federation official, he transferred these values to those around him. Thor helped to shape and mentor those who he encountered in all aspects of the sport, from the local level to the elite Olympic level and across nationalities."

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." 

FISA Development Manager, Sheila Stephens Desbans has worked with Nilsen through his time as development director: "I think I can speak for everyone in the development programme when I say that we have been honoured to work with Thor and to have him as teacher and a mentor.  He has pushed all of us to be our best while being part of a team, to share, to question ourselves and others and to constantly try to do better. We will continue to appreciate his wisdom, guidance and sense of humour."

Nilsen is synonymous with rowing across the world and became the embodiment of the values of the sport. He is known in the rowing community for his willingness to help any athlete that wants his direction. Nilsen was honoured at the Nations Dinner during World Rowing Cup II in Lucerne, Switzerland.