1 Jun 2017

A chat with Filippi Spirit Award recipient Nils Jakob Hoff

Earlier this year the World Rowing 2016 Filippi Spirit Award was awarded to Norwegian Olympic rower Nils Jakob Hoff, a medical student at the University of Bergen.

FISA Igor Meijer

Hoff won the award ahead of the largest number of nominations in the four-year history of the award. This award is for university rowers who demonstrate the core values of rowing and Hoff’s teammates say that he is an inspiration for all of those around him. Hoff started rowing as a 14-year-old and 14 years later he became a World Champion in the men’s double sculls. He suffered from bullying in his teenage years for being overweight and took up rowing as he heard it was a good way to lose weight. Hoff soon made the Norwegian junior national team and later began juggling elite rowing with medical studies.

Together with friends he founded the Medical Rowing Club, Bergen with the goal of sharing the values of rowing with their fellow students. The club now has more than 60 active rowers, with more than half of them being women. As he continued through his university studies, Hoff made two Olympic rowing teams – the London 2012 Olympic Games and Rio 2016 and has become a role model for kids struggling with weight issues.

World Rowing: Congratulations again on the 2016 Filippi Spirit Award. What was your reaction when you heard you had won?

Nils Jakob Hoff: It has been a few weeks, but I do not think it has quite sunk in yet. It made the news here in Norway and I am still getting congratulations from all over the world. It feels massive.

When I heard the news, it came as quite a shock. I was on the Seiser Alm in the Alps at a cross-country skiing training camp and the phone reception and internet was quite bad. I was told to keep it secret until it was announced, but I just had to call a few of the guys from the rowing club to tell them the big news. I remember standing outside on the balcony in the snow just to get the signal on my phone. They were over the moon, just like me and for the club the prize will definitely be a game changer.

WR: Did you know your teammates and club had nominated you?

NJH: I was nominated by a couple of guys from the club. Also, I think the dean might have been in on it. I am actually not 100% sure who and how. They blame each other and I actually had no idea, until quite late in the process, when all of the sudden I got an email asking me to confirm some details.

When I then got selected into the final round of nominees and read who we were up against, I was absolutely certain that we would not win. So you can safely say that it was a surprise several times over.

WR: You are said to have been a role model for kids struggling with weight issues and an inspiration for others?

NJH: I have not had an easy way to get to international level rowing, with a difficult childhood and being overweight. I have tried to share my story to inspire others who might be in the same situation.

I think many people can get lost in the major sports, thinking they might not be athletes, but they just have not found their sport yet. I know my story has helped people find themselves, and it is amazing to see the confidence and abilities that grow from that little seed.

I feel like I have been given a lot in life and it is my duty to pay it forward by continuing to tell the story, although it would be more comfortable to just never talk of it again. It is a closed chapter for me now, but every time it can help someone else, it makes it all a bit more worth it.

WR: The prize is about demonstrating the core values of rowing. What do these values mean to you?

NJH: I think all these values fit any successful rower in the world. If you lack any one of them, you probably will not make it all the way to the top in our sport. We do not make a lot of money so we have to have a great life balance.

If you lack commitment and dedication, you will never be there weeks on end when your hands are falling apart and your body begs you to stop. Endurance and determination are key factors to get you out to the next roll call after being beaten countless times. Fairness and respect for nature are part of being a rower. Disrespect one and you are out.

Focus and self-discipline go hand in hand when you have to juggle jobs, training and school. And when you want to look out of the boat at your opponent, but you know the race happens between your own riggers.

Inclusiveness and teamwork is the framework of it all. Nobody succeeds in rowing without their team, be it crewmates at a university, or your mum driving you to practice as a kid. We welcome people to our sport with open arms because everyone has a place here and that’s why it is so great.

WR: Do you think the work you have been doing at your rowing club has contributed to the success of your rowing career?

NJH: I think coaching others in rowing makes you a better rower yourself. In teaching the basics to students or rookies, you have to put into words all the technical concepts that you have clear images of in your own head.

WR: What are your plans for the future?

NJH: I have to study full-time medicine for another year and a half, until I can start working as a doctor. Alongside that I will train with the national team as much as possible. Because of my study plans school will have top priority in that period. From Christmas 2018, it will be all about Tokyo, with some work on the side.

WR: Have you chosen your Filippi eight yet?

NJH: Most of our members are women, so this will really be a chance to let our growing women’s team become the leading in the country and hopefully some international rowers can come out from there as well.

Hoff will be presented with the Filippi Spirit Award during World Rowing Cup II in Poznan, Poland in June.