Volker Nolte’s countless achievements as one of the country’s top rowing coaches are quickly unmasked when you understand the secret to his success.
“I will tell people what I’m doing; I just don’t tell them what I’m doing next,” said the sly Nolte who, after 24 years at the helm of Western Rowing, is hanging up the oars and focusing on his teaching.
“Many people helped me along the way – phenomenal student-athletes, dedicated assistant coaches, wonderful alumni, caring parents of our students and many other supporters made it possible to bring together a program that continued the exceptional tradition rowing has here at Western, and in London.”
Since 1993, the German-born Nolte has led the Western Rowing men’s team to 11 Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Championships and four Canadian University Rowing Championships. In 2010, he became head coach for the women’s team.
In 2013, both teams were 2013 National Champions, winning titles at the Canadian University Rowing Championships. The 2014-15 season saw the women take their second consecutive OUA and national titles, while the men placed second at provincials and fourth in the nation.
While always a strong program, there was a focused need for the men’s team to have a dedicated coach, said Nolte, who worked as a provincial coach before coming to London.
“When I came in, it was a good group of athletes, but not very well organized. There was no long-term planning,” he said. “It was more student-driven. We were strong in terms of the students who were coming here and being dedicated to rowing, but I needed to lift the program to a different level with consistent recruitment, alumni engagement and public relations. The program then grew.”
At one point, Nolte oversaw between 10-12 assistant coaches.
“I never wanted to do this by myself. I always believed in a strong team. If you do it alone, you run into too many up and down spikes when you can and can’t do things.”
While having other opportunities before Western, and while at the university, Nolte said he loves where he made his home.
“I really love the university environment. I love the vibrant energy and being part of the experience where young people are coming to learn, striving for things they’ve never done before,” he said. “I cannot imagine a better job than faculty/coach. I could have gone several times to be 100 per cent coach, either on the national level or at another university, but it never really caught my attention.
“I love that people here were giving me the freedom to do what I did, knowing it would fit into the Western program overall. My standards have always been higher than other people, so I was never really concerned with what other people said. I never felt pressure because my expectations of myself was higher than what people put on me.”
The thought of walking away from such a successful program is not worrying Nolte, as he knows those who follow him quite well. Dan Bechard and Matt Waddell, who have worked with Nolte for years, will serve as head coach of the men’s and women’s team, respectively.
“I always said I would retire when the time is right. The time is indeed right for me to pass on the head coach’s duties to two young, talented individuals I had the pleasure of seeing progress in our program,” Nolte said. “I developed a coaching team around me that I am extremely proud of, especially Dan and Matt. They’ve learned the program; they know the philosophy; they know the way we think and they are both smart – probably smarter than me, anyways. I would not have left if I didn’t believe in them.”
Bechard admits it’s a challenge in following the legendary Nolte.
“For years, I have been fortunate to watch Volker’s tireless efforts and continuously learn from his great example. I have seen first-hand as generations of Western student-athletes had their student experience enhanced by the rowing program,” Bechard said. “Volker has impacted a multitude of coaches, including myself, instilling a drive and passion for the sport like no other. I am especially fortunate to have learned under his tutelage. I am proud and excited to have the opportunity to carry the torch of the Western rowing legacy.”
Nolte’s work as a coach has been recognized several times over his career, receiving the Award of Merit from Rowing Canada Aviron and the International Rowing Federation, the President’s Award from Rowing Canada and the 3M Coach of the Year. In 2006 and 2007, he was awarded Coach of the Year from the Canadian University Rowing Association. He was the first Western coach, after Jack Fairs, to receive the Jack Fairs Coaching Award of Merit in 2009. In 2010, Nolte was presented with the Coaches’ Recognition Award from Rowing Canada.
Nolte’s national team crews won an Olympic silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games, two World Championship titles in 1993 and 2000, and several more medals at World Championships.
So, is there a moment that stands out for Nolte as he looks back on his coaching career at Western? He’s been asked that numerous times, and would “love to come up with a wonderful story,” about a certain race or title, but it’s more than about individual memories.
Sure, the first national title, and then repeating as champs, is nice. But it’s more than trophies that has kept Nolte going all these years.
“There are great memories that stand out, but it’s not just one thing,” he said. “Being out on the water when the weather is treacherous, when it is raining; or seeing crews come from all over and row poorly at first, but during the season, get better and better until all of a sudden (finger snap) it clicks. These are the things I loved to see.”
Nolte officially steps away from the program July 1. He will continue to serve as a professor in Kinesiology. While he “poured a lot of blood, time and effort into this team,” he’s fine with walking away from rowing – well, sort of.
“I won’t be there to look over their (Dan and Matt) shoulders. But if they have questions, I will be there for them,” he said. “I will always continue to show my support.”
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The Mustangs Old Oars Club invites all former Western Rowing team members to join in celebrating 60 years of rowing excellence, Sept. 15-17 in London. There will be events for all generations and their families, including the chance to cheer on the current Mustangs team at the Western Invitational Regatta, a formal alumni dinner, and the annual Old Oars Regatta and boat christening.
Visit alumni.westernu.ca/ and click on Events for details and tickets.