OUBC Remembers Dan Topolski, 1945 – 2015
Dan was born on June 4th, 1945 to Polish painter and cartoonist Feliks Topolski and actress Marian Everall. In addition to the cultural influence of his parents, Dan was actually taught to row by his father on the lake at Regent’s Park. He was first educated at the Lycée in London, where he learnt to speak immaculate French, and later at Westminster, where he became Captain of Boats, before going to Oxford to read Geography.
It was at Oxford that Dan’s love affair with rowing really started. Although initially considered too small, Dan rowed for Oxford in the winning reserve crew, Isis, in 1966, before being selected by legendary coach Hugh “Jumbo” Edwards for the Blue Boat twice, winning by 31/4 lengths in 1967 and losing by a similar margin in 1968. Dan’s long hair and immense character were in stark contrast to the traditional image of Oxford oarsmen, but it was the immense satisfaction that he took from the physical commitment and teamwork required to win that really made him stand out.
Dan’s 1968 loss was the first of a Cambridge run of six wins, prompting him to agree to become Oxford’s chief coach for the first time in 1973, a post he held for fifteen years. Prior to Dan’s arrival, Oxford had won just 12 races since the end of the First World War, to Cambridge’s 36. Under his guidance, Oxford won 12 of the next 15 races, including an astonishing record streak of 10 wins from 1976 to 1985, the subject of Dan’s book, ‘Boat Race: The Oxford Revival’.
The infamous Oxford mutiny of 1987 proved to be a turning point and the subject of another of Dan’s books, ‘True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny’, and later a film. Despite going on to win the race with a crew made up of the reserves and remaining Blues, Dan was bruised by the experience and turned down the offer to stay on as an assistant coach. It was not until 1995 that Dan became a coaching consultant to Oxford again, a position he held until his death.
As chief coach, Dan committed six months of his time to Oxford crews every year for fifteen years despite the position being unpaid. His extraordinary generosity and the commitment and determination that he instilled in his crews led to huge successes for the rowers, not just on the water, but in many other aspects of their lives then and in the future.
Dan’s involvement with rowing was not confined to Oxford. He was also a Steward of the Henley Royal Regatta, a trustee of the Mark Lees Foundation, a charity which supports young rowers, a member of London Rowing Club and Tideway Scullers School, and he had a successful career in the national team.
He won four Henley medals and was proud to have raced at the regatta 74 times, a feat only eclipsed by one other person. He rowed for Great Britain five times between 1969 and 1978, winning a silver medal at the 1975 World Championships in Nottingham and then a gold medal at the 1977 World Championships in Amsterdam (Dan returned to Amsterdam to present the medals at the 2014 World Championships). He also coached the Great Britain women’s eight from 1978 to 1980, coming 5th at the Olympics in Moscow.
Dan joined the BBC’s commentary team in 1990, focusing on The Boat Race, World Championships and Olympic rowing, a role he held until his final commentary of The Boat Race in 2013. His most famous moments behind the mike were Sir Steve Redgrave’s historic fifth consecutive Olympic gold in Sydney 2000 and Oxford’s famous one foot victory in 2003. Dan also wrote for The Observer for more than 20 years, amongst many other contributions.
Off the water, Dan’s work focused on broadcasting, travel writing and journalism, interests he juggled alongside coaching Oxford and rowing for the GB team. After university, he worked as a researcher and assistant producer for the BBC for five years before embarking on a number of remarkable adventures. He spent eight months travelling through Africa and wrote about it in his first book, ‘Muzungu: One Man’s Africa’. A few years later, he spent time living among the Kalash tribes of the Hindu Kush in Pakistan, returning just in time for Olympic trials. Later, in 1981, he spent six months travelling with his father in South America, which included being imprisoned in Paraguay. The trip was filmed and aired on BBC in 1982 and became the subject of another of Dan’s books, ‘Travels with My Father: A South American Journey’.
More recently, Dan devoted his time to collecting and exhibiting his father’s art on the South Bank in London. He oversaw the development of The Topolski Studio, an arts educational organisation that promotes Feliks Topolski’s Chronicles, a collection of over 2,300 drawings of key figures and events of the twentieth century.
The OUBC is immensely fortunate that such an extraordinary individual gave so much of his life to the club. The experience of rowing in The Boat Race is dear to all who have the privilege of competing, but seldom does one person do so much to share that experience with others. Right up until his death, Dan could be found on the Thames in Putney watching and offering advice to the Oxford crews. His legacy is woven into the OUBC today from his many victories and his continued deep involvement with the Club and the many athletes who have had the privilege of knowing him. We will miss him dearly, as will many others.