Michael Lapage: The pilot and Olympic rower who became a Kenyan teacher and preacher

Michael Lapage
Michael Lapage

Olympic oarsman Michael Lapage was born in 1923 in Shaftesbury, Dorset, the son of a vicar.

He was educated at Monkton Combe, near Bath, and went to read geography at Selwyn College, Cambridge, to read geography. Volunteering for the Fleet Air Arm in 1942, he was posted to the Naval Air Squadron, flying the Seafire near Marseilles during the withdrawal of the Axis powers.

During deployment to the Far East, he narrowly avoided being shot down and this incident had a profound effect, believing he had been “saved to serve”.

In 1948, he was part of the victorious Cambridge team in the annual Boat Race which won the race by five lengths, becoming the first Boat Race crew to finish in under 18 minutes – a record that held until 1974.

Following this success, Lapage joined the team that helped Great Britain to take silver in the 1948 London Olympics.

The Cambridge crew went on to form the main part of the silver medal winning 1948 Olympic rowing team.

Lapage also turned his hand to coaching, taking Winchester College to success in 1949, both at the Schools’ Head and in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at Henley.

He followed this silver with a bronze at the 1950 Empire Games in New Zealand.

Teaching and preaching in Kenya

After joining the Church Missionary Society, he was sent to Kenya as a teacher where early postings included in remote villages with no electricity and no running water. While in the East African country, he learnt to navigate mud roads, which became almost impassable in the rainy season.

While teaching at Maseno School, Lapage met his wife Margaret (née Butcher), the daughter of the principal in 1953, and they got engaged after just a week together.

“We had both been praying about our meeting before we met. When we met we got engaged after a week.”

After being ordained in 1963 by Obadiah Kariuki, one of the first African bishops, Lapage began evangelising, including in Masai territory, discovering congregations who had never heard of the Nativity or the Passion.

He was known to get around on his motorbike, which allowed him to reach inaccessible places, and built a church and his family home from scratch. Lapage also had a piano accordion and guitar which he played to accompany the hymns.

Life after Kenya

After leaving Kenya in 1972, he worked as an assistant chaplain at Bedford School where he was also a rowing coach, later running a parish near Lyons in France before retiring in 1988 to Tavistock in Devon, where his wife died in 1995.

In 2012, aged 88, Lapage helped to stroke Gloriana, the royal barge, down the Thames before the London Games.

But it was as a missionary and not a rower that he wanted to be remembered. “The excitement of opening up the gospel for the first time to a group of people,” he said. “Knowing I was doing God’s will.”

Michael Lapage died on July 20, 2018 aged 94. He leaves behind three children: Gillian, who became a teacher; Anne, a missionary in Tanzania; and Philip, a teacher.

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