Can Bowden Do A Topolski?

Oxford’s Chief Coach since 2000, Sean Bowden is one of the most successful Boat Race coaches, winning 12 of the last 18 races. He also won twice while coaching Cambridge in 1993 and 1994.

21 March 2018

Tim Koch thinks out aloud.

The loss of Josh Bugajski from Oxford’s ‘6’ seat a week before the Boat Race would, not too long ago, have been a big news story in the national press. Looking online, only the Daily Telegraph has the story, and even then, the writer of the piece, Rachel Quarrell, complains on Twitter, ‘Top three paragraphs quite heavily rewritten by (sub-editors), though the only change I object to is paragraph three’s implication that rowing talent is solely about weight’. BBC online sport does not cover the story. Former Times rowing correspondent, Patrick Kidd, tweeted, ‘I remember when we might have got a page-lead for this’. Today, it is social media that takes up the task of spreading information on rowing, from up-to-date news to ill-informed speculation to personal abuse.

Bowden after Oxford’s double defeat by Oxford Brookes at a fixture last month.

The reason for the replacement of the enormously talented Bugajski by the less able Aldous does not concern me until after the race – and not much then. The event is far, far bigger than any individual and speculation on the possible personal failings (or not) of one man and the consequent knock-on effects is a distraction from a wonderful event, an institution steeped in history but also nowadays, a showcase of modern high-performance rowing. The Boat Race is a very unusual sporting contest in that the participants are true amateurs performing at the very highest levels. Further, it is a ‘private event’, a challenge from one boat club president to another, that is also the most watched rowing race in the word.

Of course, the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race is also a terrible event. Like many of the best sporting clashes that galvanise even those who do not usually follow the sport in question, there is no sense to it. Were a boat race (or boat races) between Oxford and Cambridge only invented in say 1999 and not 1829, who would be interested? As Oxford Brookes has recently shown, the men’s Blue Boats are not even the fastest student crews in the country. Further, the course is possibly unfair and is sometimes near unrowable, and the race itself has been known to turn into a boring procession almost from the start. The majority of the spectators would get more pleasure from clashes and ‘sinkings’ than they would from a good clean race. Having said all this, no one is suggesting that much, if anything, should be changed. The Boat Race could be moved to the 2012 Olympic course at Dorney – but something essential would be lost in the process (though the turns needed at the ends of the Lake to make the distance 6.8 km would be interesting).

The sort of thing that the public likes to see. This is Cambridge, the day before the 1984 Boat Race. Today, the bowman, AH Reynolds of Pembroke, takes safety very seriously.

One of the reasons that the Boat Race has survived since 1829 is that, seemingly just when the general public may be getting a little bored of the event, something happens to reinvigorate interest. In modern times there was the ‘Mutiny’ of 1987, the restart of 2001, the collapse of Mayer in 2002, the 2003 one-foot verdict, the protestor/restart/broken oar/collapse of Woods in 2012, the move of the women’s race to the Tideway in 2015, the Cambridge women’s swamping of 2016. Even before the loss of Bugajski, Cambridge were perhaps the favourites, but it was shaping up to be a good and close race. The loss of arguably Oxford’s most effective oar has clearly not improved their chances – but could 2018 be another memorable year, could Sean Bowden do, what Dan Topolski did in ‘Oxford Mutiny’ of 1987, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?

Dan Topolski. Of the 15 Boat Races in which he was the coach, Oxford won 12 including an unbroken run of ten victories between 1976 and 1985. This run continued after Topolski’s departure and brought Oxford to a point in 1992 where they were within one victory of equalling Cambridge’s overall total of wins.

Thirty-one years ago, Oxford coach Dan Topolski, after much negotiation and debate, much of it conducted in the public eye, lost four of his best rowers and the cox from the Blue Boat and replaced them with members of the reserve crew, Isis. Writing in Rowing News in July 2007, Chris Dodd takes up the story:

[This] left Oxford vulnerable and with little time to prepare for Cambridge. They lacked the power, the finesse – basically, everything that the pre-mutiny line-up had going for it. But coach Dan Topolski came into his own the weekend before the race. After losing to every crew they lined up against in practice…. Oxford decamped to Walton-on-Thames to rebuild. Topolski gave the crew new, heavier wooden oars, a clingfilm jacket for the boat, and shuffled the seating order. It was a defining moment, recalled (‘7’ man) Cadoux-Hudson. ‘We had a fantastic outing, spirits were lifted, and people began to row above themselves. Dan was the conductor of the orchestra’.

While everyone predicted an easy Cambridge victory, Oxford won by four lengths. True, there was some luck, Oxford won the toss and had the rough water that worked for them, but it still was still an ending worthy of Hollywood; Oxford President Macdonald stands in the boat at the finish – punches the air – freeze frame – roll credits.

1987 – one of the great University Boat Races.

The parallels between the ‘Oxford Mutiny’ of 1987 and the loss of one (admittedly rather talented) man in 2018 should not, of course, be drawn too closely, but could Bowden ‘do a Topolski’ this year? If anyone is Dan’s heir, it is Sean (who actually has two more Boat Race wins if his victories with Cambridge are included). However, he has even less time to correct things than did his predecessor, he is having to work in the goldfish bowl of Tideway Week and, 30 years on, the crews today are so highly trained, so near their ‘maximum output’ that perhaps no more can be got out of them in the last few days. Historically, anything can happen in the Boat Race but, since the coming of professional coaching and of sponsorship in the 1970s, the variables have been reduced, less is open to chance. However, coaches of rowing, the ultimate team sport, are more than technicians, at their best they are, as Cadoux-Hudson noted, ‘conductors of the orchestra’. It will be fascinating to see if Bowden can get Oxford to play the Victory March together on Saturday.

One comment

  1. Oxford have form regarding late crew changes. In 1966 C.E. Albert was dropped on the Monday before the race and C.H.Freeman brought into the Blue Boat, Albert replacing him in Isis. There was talk then of contretemps twixt oarsman and coach though both crews went on to win their respective races.

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