Thursday, March 5, 2015

OBIT: Daniel Topolski (New College)

Dan Topolski (New College), 1945-2015
Daniel Topolski, born June 4, 1945 died on February 21 at 69 after a long illness.

He was a riveting speaker at the April 3, 2008 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race Dinner in New York City. (Other rowers who spoke that evening were Saman Majd, Kate Weber, and the late Peter Darrow.)

During Oxford's unmatched streak of 10 straight wins in the Boat Race, 1976-1985, Dan Topolski was Oxford's unpaid chief rowing coach. Oxford also won two of the other five races during 1972-1987, for a 12-3 record.

Topolski took a constantly losing Oxford boat and made it a constant winner, motivating the rowers with a laid-back manner but steely determination. His philosophy was: “I like to win..."

In 1987, his last year, he faced the Second American Revolution, as four American oarsmen picked for the Blue Boat - half the boat - decided they missed professional coaching, and after Oxford's 1986 loss to Cambridge refused to row under Topolski’s amateur-seeming-to-them direction. One of them threw a cup of tomato soup over Topolski at the Thames Rowing Club in Henley. Oxford went on to beat Cambridge without them, by four lengths, in a thunderstorm.

The next year, Topolski turned down the assistant coach job, saying: “It’s a hard slog, unpaid ... If it’s not a pleasure, it’s not worth it.”

The fallout from the mutiny was a series of disputatious years for Oxford rowing, ending with the introduction of professional coaching staff.

Topolski had the last laugh, as his story of the mutiny - cast as the British amateur-with-a-passion-for-his-sport who knows more than he is given credit for vs. Americans with a professional-athlete mindset - became a book, True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny (1989), the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, and then a film starring Dominic West (1996). The Guardian obituary describes the book as "slanted" but "highly readable".

The son of Polish painter and cartoonist Feliks Topolski and actress Marian Everall, Daniel Topolski grew up surrounded by his parents’ leftist friends. The Telegraph notes that as a youth,
On Boat Race day, Daniel was taken to “beer and buns” parties at the studio of artist Julian Trevelyan on the Middlesex side of the Thames at Chiswick. The studio’s blue doors marked the halfway point of the course. “We supported dark blue, which was Oxford. They always lost,” Topolski noted.  “We used to watch it there with Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice and their children. We’d go out to see the crews go by, my mother holding my hand, and she said, 'One day you’ll do that, son.’"
Topolski’s father taught him to scull in an old wooden boat on the lake at Regent’s Park. At Westminster he captained the First Eight, but on arrival at Oxford in 1964 he found he was lighter than other students competing for the Blue Boat. The chief coach, Ronnie Howard, usually dismissed lightweight candidates, saying: "You’re much too small for this kind of thing.” The Telegraph obit reports that Topolski compensated by gaining weight and the coaches adjusted their opinion based on his performance:
Topolski fed himself a preparation called “Bodybulk”, which raised his weight to 12 stone [an increase of 24 pounds]. Hugh “Jumbo” Edwards, another member of the coaching team in this period, selected Topolski for the 1967 Blue Boat. Asked why he had included this comparatively lightweight oarsman, Edwards said: “It’s simple. When he’s in, the boat goes faster.”
So Topolski rowed twice in the Boat Race, with Oxford winning in 1967 and losing in 1968.

Topolski did not look like the typical crew-cut Oxford Blue. He brought some style to Oxford rowing, getting Biba to design singlets for the New College Boat Club. Topolski achieved a special academic distinction, being the last person to earn a Fourth Class Oxford degree, for Geography, before the Fourth was abolished.

In 1983, Cambridge threatened not to race to protest the presence in Oxford's boat of Boris Rankov, a graduate student with five Blues already to his credit. Topolski suggested “Cambridge should stop bleating and prepare to race.” Rankov rowed, Cambridge lost, but the "Rankov Affair" still rankled, leading to the “Rankov Rule” limiting how many rowing Blues anyone may earn.

Topolski represented Britain at rowing five times during the 1969-1978 period. His honors and positions include:
  • Silver medal, 1975 World Championships in Nottingham (Coxless fours).
  • Gold medal, 1977 World Championships in Bosbaan, Amsterdam (Eights). 
  • Four Henley Medals.
  • Coach, Britain's women’s eight, 1978-1980. 
  • Commentator for the BBC, 1990-2013. 
  • Trustee of the Mark Lees Foundation, which supports young rowers. 
  • Consultant to the Oxford squad in the mid-1990s.
Topolski was a wide-ranging adventurer and author:
  • Researcher for the BBC from about 1968 to 1973.
  • Eight-month solo trip through Africa financed by Time (1972) and a book on the trip, Muzungu: One Man’s Africa (1976). 
  • Trip to the Hindu Kush in northern Pakistan to live among the Kalash tribes (1975). 
  • Tour of South America with his father (1981), during which he was arrested in Paraguay in a police dragnet and imprisoned. The tour was filmed and shown on the BBC television program The World About Us (1982), and then became a book, Travels with My Father: A South American Journey (1983).
Dan Topolski is survived by his wife, Suzy (the actress Susan Gilmore), whom he married in 1998, their children -  Emma, Tamsin and Luke - and his sister, Teresa.

More Oxford obits.

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