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 world rowing--Remembering Daniel Topolski


 Love, passion and determination: three words that encapsulate the life of Great Britain's Daniel Topolski, who died last weekend after a long illness. 

Dan loved life and was determined to live it to the full, squeezing every experience he could into his 69 years. He was one of those people who did so many different things and still managed to be completely passionate about all of them. Conversations about his experiences as a rower, iconic Boat Race coach, writer, broadcaster, traveller, art lover and child of the 60s revealed his extraordinary and infectious enthusiasm. He was a pleasure to be around.

But underneath all this was a steely determination. Topolski had a relentlessly competitive edge. It was this which helped him to become both a lightweight World Champion and to coach Oxford University to an unprecedented ten straight wins in the Oxford vs Cambridge University Boat Race between 1976 and 1985. That competitive edge was not always to everybody’s liking. Topolski, himself a former Oxford rower, was uncompromising in leaving no stone unturned to secure a victory. That attitude - in part - led to the events surrounding the famous ‘Oxford mutiny’ of 1987, something that will always be associated with Topolski’s name.

His decision to include a tougher training regime caused dissatisfaction among some of his crew, particularly a group of United States international rowers. The subsequent events led directly to one of rowing's greatest ever controversies. The five American oarsmen withdrew from the crew when they were thwarted over crew selection. It left both Oxford’s cause and Topolski, seemingly helpless. Nevertheless Oxford won a dramatic Boat Race against an apparently much stronger Cambridge crew. That victory was in a large part due to Topolski’s motivational skills and his profound knowledge about the unpredictable River Thames course.

The result became part of rowing folklore, not least because Topolski – who dropped out of coaching Oxford for eight years – wrote a best-selling book that gave his take on the events surrounding the mutiny. True Blue, published in 1989, became an enormously successful, award-wining book. Just after Topolski returned to Oxford in 1995, it was turned into a film.

Topolski was to remain an Oxford coaching consultant until his death. And though he was undoubtedly part of Britain’s elite establishment – he was educated both at Westminster School and Oxford University – Topolski’s personality and eclectic range of interests somehow seemed to set him apart.

He was the son of the brilliant Polish artist Feliks Topolski and the actress Marian Everall and was born at the end of the Second World War on 4 June 1945. That was a conflict his father – now based in Great Britain -  had chronicled as a war artist.  The young Topolski was first drawn to the sport of rowing when he learned to paddle in a rowing boat on the Regents Park Lake near his parent’s London home. Though his size always made him one of the smallest rowers in any crew in which he rowed - he hovered around the 70kg mark – Topolski more than made up for that with his technical aptitude, competitive desire and determination to win.

 He rowed in the Boat Race twice, winning in 1967 and losing the next year. His World Championship gold medal came in 1977. By then Topolski had already been coaching Oxford for two years. But he still found time to be a key member of the British lightweight eight that famously held off a Spanish charge to win in Amsterdam by of seven-hundredths of a second. Topolski also helped the men and women of Great Britain’s international teams. In 1980, he coached the women’s eight at the Moscow Olympic Games and the men’s pair four years later in Los Angeles.

Topolski juggled his rowing interests with his desire to travel and meet people. In 1972, Topolski travelled extensively in Africa. His adventures were chronicled in his book  ‘Muzungu: One Man’s Africa’. Nearly a decade later, he travelled with his father throughout South America. His time there included a brief spell in jail. Once more, Topolski wrote a book to tell the story. The father and son adventures were also captured in a film shown on BBC TV.

Topolski relished the chance to use his expertise as a rowing authority on the BBC and from 1990 he became a regular rowing expert for the Boat Race, international regattas and also at the Olympic Games. From 2000 until 2012 he and his co-commentator Garry Herbert, described an unforgettable series of British Olympic wins. Topolski’s voice was always the calm foil to Herbert’s high-octane excitement. During that time, Topolski became a Steward of the Henley Royal Regatta and was the rowing correspondent for both the Observer and London Evening Standard newspapers. His was a constant presence among the rowers and coaches in the boat park at international regattas.

Of course, it would be tempting to remember him for his achievements in rowing, but for Topolski his most important legacy was that of his love for family He was married to the actress Suzy (nee Gilmour) and amongst rowing friends, he used to delight in talking about their three children. He also had a deep love for his father and together with his sister Theresa, Topolski fought to preserve his father’s studios on the South Bank of the River Thames. You can still visit Topolski’s gallery and café near Waterloo Station and see the paintings there that meant so much to him. 

Daniel Topolski, born 4 June 1945; died 21 February 2015.

Copy thanks to Martin Crossin
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