Dan Topolski, 1945 – 2015

DanTopolskiPic 1
Dan in 2011.

Tim Koch writes:

In a world where conformity is increasingly preferred to character and where fame is routinely bestowed on those who achieve little and contribute less, the recent loss of Dan Topolski is something it can ill afford. As far as 75 words can summarise a very full life, the Daily Telegraph does it well:

Daniel Topolski, who has died aged 69, had a lifelong passion for rowing and, as Oxford’s coach, led the Dark Blues to an unprecedented 10 straight wins in the Boat Race between 1976 and 1985. In 1987 he was involved in one of the greatest controversies in rowing history, the rebellion by American crew-members that became known as the “Oxford mutiny”. He was also a journalist, travel writer, broadcaster, motivational guru, raconteur, photographer and art curator.

The Guardian also carries a fine tribute to a man who gained one of Hear The Boat Sing’s favourite distinctions, a Fourth from Oxford – an ‘oarsman’s degree’.

The rowing journalist and historian Chris Dodd has kindly given permission for us to reproduce a speech that he gave in 2012 when presenting Topolski with the ‘Rowing Journalist of the Year Award’. Written for a happy event, the speech now serves as a fitting tribute at a very sad time:

The recipient of the BARJ Journalist of the Year award for 2012 goes to someone who has enjoyed several careers in our sport, and you will soon work out who it is when I say that he has had a lifetime obsession with the Boat Race, or at any rate the darker side of the Boat Race.

‘I first became aware of the Boat Race in the 1950s when my parents took me to a Boat Race party at the painter Julian Trevelyan’s studio hard by Chiswick Eyot,’ he wrote several years ago. ‘It was a gathering of the most unlikely sporting enthusiasts – architects, actors, writers like A P Herbert, the Empsons, the Redgraves (that’s the arty-farty Redgraves), Stanley Spencer, Hugh Casson, Elizabeth Frink and other odd Fabians – a wonderfully eccentric typically British affair.

‘The crews swept by and were gone in a moment and we all cheered and rushed back inside to see them finish on the telly,  and I decided to support Oxford because they always seemed to lose.’

Trevelyan’s studio, incidentally, is the blue window which more or less marks the half-way point of the Championship course.

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Dan (on the right) observing Oxford, 2014.

The young Daniel, for it is he, was taught the rudiments of rowing on Regent’s Park lake by his father, the artist Felix Topolski.  From the age of 11 he worked at the boathouse on the lake, tending to boaters and varnishing boats and rowing himself in an old single whenever he could.

Rowing at Westminster and Oxford followed, and we all know what happened after that. Dan was completely hooked. In answer to a journalist as to what is the best bit about coaching, his reply was: 

‘Making them believe in themselves. Giving them an atmosphere in which motivation can take root, bringing out the hunger, the competitiveness within.’

This reply led…….. the questioner, to wonder what a man with ‘this will, this hunger, this competitiveness  might have achieved in real professional sport, but then you might as well wonder what prototype renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci would have done with twentieth century technology.’  Topolski needed contradiction, and the Boat Race gave it to him, ungrudgingly, and still does, concluded (the questioner) who also pointed out that Dan was ‘four stone too light to row in the boat race. But he did it. Twice.’

Towards the end of his time as Oxford’s finishing coach, Dan confesses to trying to extricate himself from the sport altogether. It was, he said, time to do something more serious.

‘But the harder I squirm the more deeply embedded I become. Physically and emotionally I am helplessly trapped.‘

Which brings us to this award, which is not for coaching, but for journalism. Dan has written on rowing for newspapers and magazines, but he has also become a knowledgeable and fluent commentator on rowing for the BBC, bringing a coach’s eye to world cup races, world championships and Olympic regattas, delivered…… with a minimum of hype.  His mellifluous tones inform us as well as promoting our sport to those who’ve never been close to it, and it is with great pleasure that the 2012 BARJ Journalist of the Year award goes to — Daniel Topolski.

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