The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
by Daniel James Brown
“Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.” ― Daniel James Brown
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown, is a chronicle of the University of Washington's nine-man crew-with-coxswain's enormous success during the Great Depression. It is this portrait of the Depression era, with its economic and climatic horrors that the author sets against youthful dreams, focusing on the improbable and riveting life of Joe Rantz, and the many hardships he faced. When he entered the University of Washington as a freshman, he had already overcome enormous odds, among them extreme poverty, a dysvunctional family, the early death of his mother, and being virtually abandoned by his father, Harry, when he was a young teenager. His journey to adulthood by itself is a truly amazing story and it makes him an ideal hero. Brown learned the details of Rantz's brilliant rowing career from the athlete himself. But this story was not just about him; it was always about the boat: nine rangy boys – sons of farmers, fishermen, and loggers – who managed to coalesce into a rowing team that would march confidently into the 1936 Olympics under the hawkish eyes of Hitler, emerging victorious over rival crews from Germany and Italy.
The story includes the lore of rowing, which has a rich history in America, reaching back to the mid-19th century, when elite universities began to assemble teams. The Harvard-Yale race in 1852 was, Brown informs us, "the first American intercollegiate athletic event of any kind". He also provides vivid portraits of the coaches, such as Tom Bolles, who assisted his former teammate, Al Ulbrickson, at Washington. (In the background of this narrative lurks Ky Ebright, a former Washingtonian who took over the University of California at Berkeley team – Washington's major rival on the west coast.)
Standing behind the coaches is George Pocock, an English boat-builder who learned the art of building wooden shells for racing from his father. He is the "quiet master" throughout, on the sidelines, ever inventive, full of wise words. His comments, in fact, serve as epigraphs to each chapter. Pocock says, for instance: "Good thoughts have much to do with good rowing. It isn't enough for the muscles of a crew to work in unison; their hearts and minds must also work as one." "One of the fundamental challenges in rowing," he writes, "is that when any one member of a crew goes into a slump the entire crew goes with him." Such slumps occur, and Brown dramatizes them well, arranging the facts in ways that create a narrative suspense that never eases till the end. As the Washington crew races in Seattle and Poughkeepsie, New York for the American title or, finally, in Nazi Germany for the Gold Medal, one roots for the good guys.
At the penultimate point in the story the suspense is enhanced by further setbacks when two of the American rowers fell desperately ill before the race, though they persevered at the insistence of their coach. Also, as if to increase the tension, the American team was given the worst lane, putting them in the path of severe crosswinds. Throughout the race, the crowd cheered wildly for Germany, as they would. All omens seemed to be against the boys in the boat, but they prevailed, coming from behind, beating Italy by eight feet, leaving the German crew in third place.
I was impressed with Brown's research, what must have been countless interviews, the exhumation of journals and logs, and the patient review of long-defunct newspaper articles and photographs that was required. The Boys in the Boat is, then, a thrilling read, filled with suspense that brings you close to the events on that day in 1936 when those nine boys from Washington state reached their improbable victory. I believe this book would be of interest to anyone interested in the history of sports, collegiate competition, Seattle and the Northwest, America during the 1930s, and the rise of Fascism in Germany.
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