Daniel Topolski: Flamboyant rower and coach who led Oxford to Boat Race supremacy and beat his own men in the 'True Blue' mutiny

His gift was to persuade lesser talents that if they came through the fire of his training they could beat anybody

When Daniel Topolski first coached an Oxford crew for the Boat Race in 1973 it was assumed by many that rugby, cricket and rowing were conducted in their respective Varsity matches at national or international level. It is only in rowing that leading universities still compete at world level – and that is thanks to him.

As an oarsman Topolski won the Boat Race with Oxford in 1967 and lost in 1968. After Oxford, where he took the last ever fourth in Geography, and then a Diploma in Social Anthropology, he was a natural for the emerging world of television journalism and began his career with the BBC. Even by the standards of the late Sixties he was a bohemian and romantic figure; cascades of black curls framed the face of an impish Greek god, Eros with a hint of Bacchus. He was small by rowing standards and built himself into a muscular, athletic David who took on Goliath with pleasure.

He lived until his forties with his mother Marian in a rambling house in Hanover Terrace on the west side of Regent's Park. It began as a family home with a lease acquired by his father Feliks Topolski, a noted war artist, who was patronised by Prince Philip and the haute bourgeoisie. Inside it was all art and chatter. It was rarely heated unless Marian turned on the rings of the cooker in her smoke-filled kitchen. From this chaotic idyll Daniel was sent to the French Lycée and then to Westminster, from which his determination and athleticism led him to New College, Oxford. His father, the émigré Pole, was disappointed that he was not going to one of the old colleges.

At Oxford he tried for the Boat Race squad but was rejected as too slight by coaches who thought absolute power more valuable than relative power. This unimaginative stance gave him the chip on his shoulder he needed to row well enough and hard enough to beat bigger men, and when in 1974 international rowing created a new class of lightweights his 70kg body was the perfect size. He won silver in a coxless four at the 1975 World Championships and became lightweight world champion in the eight in Amsterdam in 1977.

Irritated by Oxford's poor record against Cambridge he persuaded the rowing president, the American Olympian David Sawyier, to appoint him as finishing coach for the 1973 race. They lost, but learned plenty, and Topolski went on to make his formula of intense physical training and inspired man management the source of 10 straight wins from 1976. His gift was to persuade lesser talents that if they came through the fire of his training they could beat anybody; indeed, sometimes his crews were inferior in all but spirit and won against the odds.

Topolski was accused throughout his career of recruiting older, high-powered oarsmen from abroad and packing them into crews which then out-rowed less well endowed light blue boys. This is nonsense. His fourth in Geography and his relative poverty left him unable to persuade the University to admit academically weak applicants or to fund scholarships to cover high tuition fees for foreign postgraduates. But such aspirants would seek him out whenever he was competing or coaching abroad and ask how they might join his success story. Regardless of their talent, all were encouraged and directed to the admissions office. The rising number of international postgraduates over Topolski's 40 years of coaching and advising and the declining number from the English public schools simply reflects the changing nature of the British student population.

In 1986, when he had been absent for much of the winter, the Oxford crew lost. Chris Clarke, a Californian postgraduate, rowed in that crew and went home determined to find some strong Americans to ensure a win for his second year. Whether he recruited them, or whether they would have come anyway, their experience was in well-funded and well-organised university boat clubs and national teams. They were astonished when the squad had a whip round for coins for the gas meter to get a hot shower after training, and by the sight of the finishing coach driving the bus to practice, rigging the boats and then taking the megaphone in the coaching launch. They were bemused by the contrast of Topolski's revolting fur coat and his carelessly long hair with his driven intensity in all types of training, in the gym or on the water.

Their objections over selection and the battle for authority – which resulted in three certainties for the top crew resigning, taking two others with them – was the lead sports story for weeks. The astonishing denouement when the crew, composed mostly of spares, beat a good Cambridge crew in a cataclysmic thunderstorm, was written up by Topolski (with Patrick Robinson) in the 1989 book True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny, which won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award and was adapted into the 1996 film True Blue, directed by Ferdinand Fairfax. Topolski won the battle for authority because Oxford rowing has no written constitution and the president and chief coach could select as they wished – and because he knew more about winning that particular race than anyone alive.

A year later money began to flow in much larger quantities and the club developed a proper organisation with a new regime. Topolski was offered an assistant position, which he declined. He stood back for a year or two and then was drawn back in as an adviser to the professional coaches. He was in close touch with the coach and the squad until last week.

Along with his sister Tessa, for the last 15 years of his life Topolski, who was married to the actress Suzy Gilmore, worked to restore the legacy of his father, who died in 1989 leaving an enormous collection of 20th century documentary painting and drawing with almost every celebrity and public figure represented. Daniel secured £3m of lottery and sponsorship money to preserve the collection in the railway arches at Waterloo where Feliks had created it. A portion is visible in the Topolski bar and cafe in the South Bank Arts Centre.

Daniel Topolski, oarsman, coach and journalist: born London 4 June 1945; married 1998 Suzy Gilmore (two daughters, one son); died 21 February 2015.

Comments