It was good of this great man of Thames to drop me a line of support in my opposition to Cambridge University Boatclub’s pointless destruction of Ouse riverbank when the only reason they train in Ely is the Great Ouse rowing conditions.
Daniel Topolski, who has died aged 69, was a journalist, broadcaster, author and commentator, but above all a tenacious oarsman, light in weight while heavy in nous, who coached Oxford to a remarkable run of 10 victories in the Boat Race from 1976 to 1985. The following year, an outstanding Cambridge crew brought an end to Oxford’s winning streak, the longest in the club’s history, achieved by crews that Dan nurtured, toughened and inspired. By then, losing had been erased from Oxford’s memory, and in 1987 the club was rocked by a mutiny when most of the oarsmen, including five American internationals, fell out with Dan and the Oxford University Boat Club president, Donald Macdonald, over selection and training.
With the aid of freak weather conditions, Oxford’s unhappy crew, minus its American rowers, won the race, but the mutiny resulted in years of schism, reform of the club’s constitution and the introduction of professional coaches. It was the worst year of Dan’s rowing life, but also brought about his highly readable if highly slanted account, True Blue (1989), which in 1996 became a film of the same name. In 1988 he turned down the offer extended by the new president, Chris Penney, who had refused to row in 1987, of joining the coaching team under Mike Spracklen. But in 1995 Dan became a coaching consultant to Oxford, a post he held until his death.
Son of the artist and chronicler of the 20th century Feliks Topolski, and his wife, the actor Marion Everall, Dan learned to row on Regent’s Park lake, opposite the family home in central London. After attending the Lycée Français, he went on to Westminster school, where he became captain of boats and encountered the professional sculler Ted Phelps and Oxford’s famous coach Hugh “Jumbo” Edwards, both of whom occasionally coached the school. Dan was immersed in rowing, mostly on the Boat Race course, for the rest of his life, with Oxford, London RowingClub, Tideway Scullers School (TSS) and the GB team.
At New College, Oxford, Dan studied geography and majored in partying alongside rowing. He won the reserves race with Isis in 1966, and the 1967 Boat Race, only to lose the 1968 race. That was the first of a Cambridge run of six wins while Oxford spun into almost terminal decline. But it was also the year that Dan began occasional coaching.
In 1973 he was Oxford’s chief coach for the first time. His hand was held by George Harris, boatbuilder and Christ Church boatman for almost 50 years, whose garden gate fronted on the river. “He knew what good rowing was, he was a good waterman,” Harris said, “but the biggest thing about him was that he could tear a strip off any man in the crew and I could guarantee that five minutes after insulting a man right down to the ground there would be no bad feeling.”
That year Dan sent what he described as a fantastic crew to their doom by failing to fit aerofoil outriggers suitable for rough water. The boat filled up in minutes and lost by 13 lengths. “I have kept a photograph of their half-submerged despair as they struggled bravely but vainly under Hammersmith bridge, to remind me never to underestimate the powers of the tideway in belligerent mood,” Dan wrote years later. Despite being a seat-of-the-pants operator who set out before making a travel plan, Dan never again lost his grip on detail, or experimented without proven result.
In Dan’s day, Boat Race crews were coached by a succession of amateurs invited to do so by the incoming president. The Oxford mutiny of 1987 buried this system, but until then Dan was an able ringmaster, recruiting a stable of assistants who covered technique, tactics, combativeness and refinement. Dan’s talents included an analytical eye for faults and strengths, an understanding of crew psychology, a hunger for winning and the ability to role-play where a crucial ingredient was lacking. Graeme Hall, a Cambridge oarsman who beat him and coached against him – and rowed with him in GB crews – observed that Dan did not recognise training. “He didn’t train. He only raced,” Hall said.
Dan won a silver medal in Britain’s lightweight four at the world championships in 1975, a Henley medal with TSS in 1976, and a gold medal in Britain’s lightweight eight in Amsterdam in 1977, by a margin of seven-hundredths of a second. He returned to the scene of his triumph to present the medals for this event at last year’s world championships. From 1978 until 1980 he was chief coach of Britain’s women for the Moscow Olympics. The cox Susan Brown was a member of that team and in 1981 became the first woman to steer in the Boat Race.
Off the water, Dan turned his hand to journalism. After graduation he became an assistant producer on Late Night Line-Up at the BBC and undertook travel expeditions, including six months in Africa and a visit to South America where he was jailed briefly in a clampdown on foreigners when the president of Nicaragua was assassinated.
In 1990 Dan joined the BBC’s commentary team and gave viewers a calm, articulate analysis of racing while Garry Herbert looked after the superlatives in a great partnership. Dan also wrote about rowing for the Evening Standard and from 1991 until 2012 for the Observer. He was elected a steward of Henley Royal Regatta in 1991, was the British Association of Rowing Journalists’ journalist of the year in 2012, and was made an honorary fellow of New College in 2013.
He is survived by his wife, Suzy (nee Gilmore), whom he married in 1998, their children, Emma, Tamsin and Luke, and his sister, Teresa.
• Daniel Topolski, rower, coach and broadcaster, born 4 June 1945; died 21 February 2015