Thursday, 23 September 2021

True Blue author loses cancer battle

DANIEL TOPOLSKI, who has died aged 69, was a journalist, broadcaster, author, commentator and rower who coached Oxford to a remarkable run of 10 victories in the Boat Race from 1976 to 1985.

DANIEL TOPOLSKI, who has died aged 69, was a journalist, broadcaster, author, commentator and rower who coached Oxford to a remarkable run of 10 victories in the Boat Race from 1976 to 1985.

In 1987 the club was rocked by a mutiny when most of the oarsmen, including five American internationals, fell out with Dan and the Oxford University Boat Club president Donald Macdonald over selection and training.

With the aid of freak weather conditions, Oxford's unhappy crew, minus its American rowers, won the race but the mutiny resulted in years of schism, reform of the club's constitution and the introduction of professional coaches.

In 1988 he turned down the offer by the new president Chris Penney, who had refused to row a year earlier, of joining the coaching team under Mike Spracklen.

But in 1995 Dan became a coaching consultant to Oxford, a post he held until his death.

Son of the artist and chronicler of the 20th century Feliks Topolski and his wife, the actor Marion Everall, Dan learned to row on Regent's Park lake, opposite the family home in central London.

After attending the Lycée Francais, he went on to Westminster School, where he became captain of boats and encountered the professional sculler Ted Phelps and Oxford's famous coach Hugh 'Jumbo'� Edwards, both of whom occasionally coached the school.

Dan was immersed in rowing, mostly on the Boat Race course, for the rest of his life, with Oxford, London Rowing Club, Tideway Scullers School and the GB team. At New College, Oxford, Dan studied geography alongside rowing.

He won the reserves race with Isis in 1966 and the 1967 Boat Race only to lose the 1968 race. That was the first of a Cambridge run of six wins while Oxford spun into almost terminal decline but it was also the year that Dan began occasional coaching.

In 1973 he was Oxford's chief coach for the first time. His hand was held by George Harris, boatbuilder and Christ Church boatman for almost 50 years, whose garden gate fronted on the river. That year Dan sent what he described as a fantastic crew to their doom by failing to fit aerofoil outriggers suitable for rough water. The boat filled up in minutes and they lost by 13 lengths.

Despite being a seat-of-the-pants operator who set out before making a travel plan, Dan never again lost his grip on detail, or experimented without proven result.

In his day, Boat Race crews were coached by a succession of amateurs invited to do so by the incoming president. The Oxford mutiny of 1987 buried this system but until then Dan was an able ringmaster, recruiting a stable of assistants who covered technique, tactics, combativeness and refinement.

Dan's talents included an analytical eye for faults and strengths, an understanding of crew psychology, a hunger for winning and the ability to role-play where a crucial ingredient was lacking.

Dan won a silver medal in Britain's lightweight four at the world championships in 1975, a Henley medal with Tideway Scullers School in 1976 and a gold medal in Britain's lightweight eight in Amsterdam in 1977 by a margin of seven-hundredths of a second.

He returned to the scene of his triumph to present the medals for this event at last year's world championships.

From 1978 until 1980 he was chief coach of Britain's women for the Moscow Olympics. The cox Susan Brown was a member of that team and in 1981 became the first woman to steer in the Boat Race.

Off the water, Dan turned his hand to journalism.

After graduation, he became an assistant producer on Late Night Line-Up at the BBC and undertook travel expeditions, including six months in Africa and a visit to South America, where he was jailed briefly in a clampdown on foreigners when the president of Nicaragua was assassinated.

In 1990 Dan joined the BBC's commentary team and gave viewers a calm, articulate analysis of racing while Garry Herbert looked after the superlatives in a great partnership.

Dan also wrote about rowing for the Evening Standard and from 1991 until 2012 for the Observer.

He earned his spurs at Henley Royal Regatta by a prolific presence on the course. He entered 29 events at the regatta and took part in more than 70 races on the famous one mile, 550 yard course under various colours.

He won three Henley trophies - the Wyfold in 1969 and the Britannia in 1970, both with London Rowing Club, and the Britannia for the second time in 1976 with Tideway Scullers.

Elected a steward in 1991, he preferred duties in and about the boat tents to being an aligneur at the start or a judge at the finish, or riding the umpires' launches.

In the boat tents he met crowds of rowers, coaches, boatmen and friends as they ebbed and flowed to races and in the press box close by he kept in touch with journalist colleagues who enjoy the best view of the courses.

At weekends he was posted in the back of the press box as the stewards' traffic cop, calmly ordering cruisers to cut wash and directing racing boats towards the start.

His manner showed a talent for calming things down as effective as his ability to wind a Blue Boat up to fever pitch to annihilate Cambridge.

He was the British Association of Rowing Journalists' journalist of the year in 2012 and was made an honorary fellow of New College in 2013.

Dan is survived by his wife Suzy (nee Gilmore), whom he married in 1998, their children, Emma, Tamsin and Luke, and his sister, Teresa.

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