An Oarsome addition to our rowing community

In the world of Australian rowing, there’s no more famous crew than the Oarsome Foursome. And there’s arguably no more respected coach than Noel Donaldson, who led them to gold at the 1990 and 1991 World Championships, as well as the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.

Noel was recently appointed Head Rowing Coach at Melbourne Grammar School. While he is keen to share his world-class experience, Noel says his approach to coaching is still about meeting each rower where they are.

“Any sport is about the journey,” Noel says. “My role at Melbourne Grammar is about giving the boys an opportunity to follow an aspiration. They don’t necessarily need all my rowing knowledge. My focus is on making the process enjoyable, improving their skills, and seeing where we can take Melbourne Grammar from here.”

Recognising brilliance and building success

Among many things, a coach is an identifier of promise, a person with a discriminating eye for what separates a competent athlete from a good or potentially great one. Noel says when seeking talent, there are always clues a coach looks out for.

“Most sport has a technical component, a physical component and a mental component to it,” he explains. “Good athletes always shine in no less than one of those. They shine completely and utterly. But the people who medal on a regular basis at the international level, probably shine in all three.”

Once you’ve found that talent, Noel says, success comes in great part down to good planning and good training.

“The ‘you only race as well as you train’ cliche is really, really true. So therefore, the coach of a crew at any level has a fundamental responsibility in the training program: setting it up and making it challenging enough, teaching enough skills, giving enough competitive opportunities.”

And they also have a responsibility, he believes, to eschew any sense of personal glory. 

“I don’t think the good coaches have any ego about it. We all run off the rule that if they win, then it’s because the athletes are good. And if they lose, it’ll be our fault.”

The Melbourne Grammar challenge

Noel is keenly aware of how important the rowing program is to Melbourne Grammar and is straightforward about what he hopes to achieve: Can we move to being consistently the best on the river?

“There’s a sense of pride in our rowing community, and the motivation is there,” he explains. “If we’re to reach the top, we’ve got to continue to take a holistic approach to developing our rowers.”

Noel intends to give our rowers more advanced skills, more rowing knowledge, more strategic information, and more race strategy. He will also address diet, fitness, and mental health throughout the program.

At the same time, he aims to develop the skills of our younger coaches and ensure they understand the importance of their role in setting behavioural and cultural expectations around the Boat Club.

No matter which level of competition his rowers are working towards, Noel says the satisfaction he gets from coaching comes from helping people reach their next milestone.

“If I can help someone else be better, then I’ve done my job,” he says.

Noel Donaldson: Rowing coaching career – selected highlights


Noel’s outstanding career includes appointments as Head Rowing Coach at Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS), National Head Men’s Rowing Coach with Rowing Australia (concurrent with VIS role) and Head Rowing Coach in New Zealand.

He was the Men’s Head Coach of the Australian rowing team at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Australia’s most successful men’s team at any Olympic regatta. Noel also served as the Rowing Section Leader for the Australian team competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Honours and Awards
1992: Australian Coaching Council and the Confederation of Australian Sport’s Coach of the Year
1999: Inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame
2000: Awarded an Australian Sports Medal
2010: Rowing Australia Coach of the Year
2017: Rowing New Zealand Coach of the Year
2020: Life Member of Rowing Australia

International Medals (as coach)
Olympic Games
1992: Barcelona Olympics – men’s coxless four, gold
1996: Atlanta Olympics – men’s coxless four, gold
2000: Sydney Olympics – men’s coxless pair, bronze
2016: Rio Olympics – men’s coxless pair, gold (NZ)

Rowing World Championships
1990, 1991: men’s coxless four, gold
1998, 2010, 2014: men’s coxed pair, gold
1998: men’s coxed four, gold; men’s coxless pair, silver
1999: men’s coxless pair, gold
2010: men’s eight, bronze
2011: men’s coxed pair, silver
2013, 2014, 2015: men’s coxless pair, gold (NZ)
2017: men’s coxless pair, silver (NZ)

U23 World Championships
2003: U23 men’s single scull, gold; U23 men’s lightweight single scull, silver
2023: U23 men’s coxless four, silver