SJA member and rowing great Dan Topolski has died

Daniel Topolski at the SJA's Sports AWards in December 2013
Daniel Topolski at the SJA’s Sports Awards in December 2013

SJA member Dan Topolski, the former Oxford University oarsman and coach, broadcaster and writer, has died. He was 69.

As a rowing coach, Topolski’s reputation is  without match, as he guided Oxford crews to a remarkable run of 10 victories in the Boat Race from 1976 to 1985.

But it was in 1987, when there was the notorious “mutiny” in the university boat club, which led to Topolski’s most notable journalistic achievement, the writing (together with Patrick Robinson) of True Blue, the first winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize, which was later made into a feature film.

Topolski had worked in broadcasting after graduating, starting as a researcher on BBC2’s Late Night Line-Up in the late 1960s. From 1990, Topolski began working as a member of the BBC Sport’s rowing commentary team, a period that would coincide with the most successful era in the history of British rowing.

Topolski used his deep knowledge of the sport to inform his journalism, as he wrote for The Observer (from 1991 to 2012), The Times, Telegraph, and undertook travel writing and photography for prestigious magazines such as Time, Country Life and Tatler. For 25 years, he was a stalwart member of the SJA, attending our events; he was last at our Sports Awards in December 2013, when he presented one of the prizes and reveled in the celebration of the achievements that year of the British rowing squad.

Topolski was the son of the Polish-born artist, Feliks Topolski, and the actress, Marion Everall, and grew up in an arts circle of post-war London, being taken each spring to the Thames Tideway to watch the Boat Race at parties which were also attended by Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice and their children.

He studied Geography at Oxford, where – despite his relatively small frame for an oarsman by modern standards – the 10st 4lb Topolski bulked himself up to earn his place in the 1967 winning Boat Race crew, and also rowed in 1968. When coach “Jumbo” Edwards was asked why he selected this lightweight, he said: “It’s simple. When he’s in, the boat goes faster.”

Topolski went on to row for Great Britain, winning a silver medal in Britain’s lightweight four at the world championships in 1975, and a gold in Britain’s lightweight eight in 1977 in Amsterdam, to where he returned last year as an honoured presenter at the world championship regatta. He rowed 74 times at the Henley Royal Regatta, where he was elected a steward in 1991.

He took up coaching duties at OUBC in 1973, and after a hiatus following the 1987 controversy, he remained involved with the club as a coaching consultant until his death. For two years from 1978, he was the chief coach of the Great Britain’s women’s team.

The SJA’s officers, committee and members send their condolences to Dan’s widow, Suzy and family and friends.