Rowing: Topolski's university challenge: Richard Williams meets the Boat Race legend who has returned to help steer the Dark Blues on a course towards a brighter future

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'A terrible thing to do,' Daniel Topolski agreed. 'Stupid] From a personal point of view, there's nothing much to be gained. But I do think there's something I can offer. Well, they think there is, so I might as well do it.

And I suppose it's a little bit of a challenge.'

A little bit of a challenge? He was talking about taking the most perilous journey of all: going back to the scene of former glory. For Topolski, whose legend rests on 12 Boat Race victories - 10 of them in a row - as Oxford's chief coach from 1973 to 1987, has heard the call. And now, at 49, he is putting that legend back on the line.

His original tenure ended only after the notorious 1987 mutiny by a group of American oarsmen, who used the previous year's defeat as a pretext to challenge the coach's authority. After a bitter struggle which saw four Americans leave the boat, he urged his severely weakened crew on to a last, redemptive victory. Then, with a leading mutineer unexpectedly installed as president of the Dark Blues, Topolski stood down and went away to write an acclaimed book, True Blue, about the experience. Years later, the consequences for Oxford rowing were painfully visible in the results of the two most recent races, Cambridge's first back-to-back successes since . . .

well, since the two years before Topolski first took charge. And so, earlier this month, the Oxford committee did the obvious thing, persuading him to sign a three-year contract as paid part- time coaching director.

His first task is to rebuild the club's spirit. After the crushing defeat by six lengths last March, Oxford's morale - so long afloat on the waves of Topolski's energy, expertise and motivational gifts - had all but drowned.

Here's how bad the position is: 'There are four of the guys who rowed last year who're refusing to turn out this time. That's quite shocking, that they don't have the urge and the hunger within themselves to come back and win.

They don't have that sort of character. Which I find odd. A couple of them are rowing with Leander Club, one of them would probably like to row but has a lot of academic work, and the other one . . . puh . . . just decided not to race. That's four people who could be contributing to winning this Boat Race, but don't want to know.'

Has he talked to them?

'A couple. But you want people who've got the the hunger. Reluctance is . .

. well, in the end they wouldn't work for you.'

If I were in the Cambridge camp, I would be listening to the story of the refuseniks with deepening trepidation. For the oarsmen who do get into the Dark Blue boat next April Fool's Day will be in with a chance not only of restoring Oxford's honour but of adding another chapter to the Topolski legend, a story that has its origin in the use of adversity.

Back in 1968, Topolski was rowing in his second Boat Race. The previous year, under the supervision of his hero, Jumbo Edwards, whose coaching reign lasted 18 years, they had won. But in the springtime of the Summer of Love, they lost when they should have won. And Topolski himself took some of the blame.

'A lot of mistakes were made in bringing the crew to the line,' he said.

'And in taking a certain responsibility for that, I think I felt I had to redress the balance in all those years of coaching them myself. Now I've done it, but maybe there's still a residual guilt about losing that race.'

The practical legacy of the defeat of '68 is to be found in Topolski's insistence on a high degree of tactical and strategic planning. This is not, perhaps, the sort of trait most readily associated with an unreconstructed King's Road boulevardier. 'A proper Sixties person,' according to an old friend, he now lives in elegant disorder in a lovely Maida Vale stucco terrace with the actress Suzy Gilmour and their two small daughters, surrounded by the paintings of his late father, Feliks Topolski, and mementos of the distant travels which, in between Boat Race commitments, have formed the basis for a career in print and radio journalism. As a rowing man, Topolski once described himself as a 'serious amateur', and while the 'amateur' is summed up in his response to a question about why he never became a professional coach ('It's just a hobby, it's my sport, it's not for grown-ups'), the 'serious' is expressed in his attention to the detail of race preparation.

'When I first took over, it wasn't too difficult to put in a more professional approach,' he said last week. 'We were all pretty amateurish then. Now we all train bloody hard. But I worry about the little things. I try to see mistakes coming a long way off and to sort them out before they become big problems. The mutiny didn't quite work out like that] But, generally speaking, the longer I went on, the better I got at spotting danger points. In the end we won a number of races we shouldn't really have won, partly because those mistakes just didn't get made.'

Those danger points range from technical matters like the use of custom-made aerodynamic riggers to the sort of tactical nous that comes only from an experience of the Tideway which, in Topolski's case, goes back to his schooldays at Westminster. There he won races thanks to a skill honed in childhood on the lake near the family home in Regent's Park, where, encouraged by his father, he pestered the attendants to let him go out at dusk in their old skiff to round up the dinghies.

'Knowing the Tideway means you don't make a mistake like giving way to the temptation of a last- minute change. Say a cox might be worrying about an extra few pounds in weight. So you might put an inexperienced cox into the boat. Well, I lost a Boat Race doing that. The difficulty of steering the Tideway is such that you really want somebody who knows what he's doing, and an extra few pounds in weight aren't going to matter when the crunch comes.'

For similar reasons, Topolski and his new full-time chief coach, Penny Chuter, currently have their new squad of 26 oarsmen competing in small boats - sculls and pairs - every weekend. 'It teaches them what they have to do in a boat to make it go fast, rather than just sitting in the middle of an eight that's going well. It gives them mental toughness. It's teaching them to steer, to understand the river, to tune themselves in to it: why the bends are there, what the stream is doing. And it teaches them to think for themselves.'

But, ultimately, can you have eight oarsmen in a single boat all thinking for themselves?

'You must] Come the day, they've got to be thinking as one unit. But they have to be aware of where they are on the river at all times, and of how important a particular push is at a certain moment. If they don't know why they're doing it, how can they be expected to do it properly?'

And no one is in a better position to impart this knowledge than Topolski, who watched his first Boat Race at the age of seven from the artist John Trevelyan's house by Chiswick Eyot, in the company of his parents' friends - Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, William Empson. His mother, the actress Marion Everall, held him up to watch; a former Alexander Korda starlet, she had spent the Thirties in and out of Bow Street magistrates' court, a fur-coated participant in anti-fascist demonstrations.

Some of those proclivities resurfaced in her son, a figure of raffish demi-monde glamour who, in his first year as chief coach, was portrayed by the Evening Standard taking training from the towpath dressed in blue velvet trousers and black patent boots, and used to slalom around west London in a battered Mini-Moke between visits to Cuba, Bhutan or Cambodia. His Sixties heritage enables him to wrap pleasure around the seriousness and diligence which are at the heart of his remarkable record. Whose wisdom, I asked, had most affected his methods?

In rowing, he talked about Jumbo Edwards and Mike Spracklen. Then there were Mike Whittingham, the 400-metres coach, rugby's Roger Uttley, and Daley Thompson - 'There's a quote of Daley's that I use: 'I train twice on Christmas Day because I know the other bastards aren't training at all, so it gives me two extra days.' ' Alan Jones, the Australian rugby coach, had impressed him during a spell at Oxford by his approach to a demoralised group: 'He just cleaned out all the baggage that comes with losing and made a new start. He could turn things around very quickly, just by force of personality.' Outside sport, he mentioned Fidel Castro, 'a great survivor'.

Now Topolski is being asked to reassert his own charismatic hold, bringing his knowledge to bear on a new generation of oarsmen. And, at the same time, to re-engage with the destiny he had set aside.

'Well,' he said, 'I suppose that's true. I'm stuck with it, really. I'm part of it, and it's part of me.'

(Photographs omitted)