Book Review of The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

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Genre: Outdoor Recreation
Author: Daniel James Brown
Title: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (Buy the Book)

Summary

In his New York Times Bestseller, The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown shares the story of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.

The University of Washington’s eight-oar crew was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by challenging the German boat rowing for Adolf Hitler.

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The heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager who was forced to fend for himself after his parents abandoned him at an early age. Through hard work and sheer determination, Joe funded his way through school in a Depression-Era United States, all while rowing for Washington.

As the author follows Joe’s story from childhood to Olympic glory, readers are taken on a roller coaster ride of emotions. When he arrived on campus in the fall of 1933, Joe had never rowed a lick in his life. Never one to back down from a challenge, he took quickly to the sport, and his physical and mental toughness earned him a spot on the freshman first boat.

That crew would go on to win a freshman national championship, and make a lasting impression on rowing fans across the nation. The next two years would present Joe with unimaginable challenges, both on the water and in his family life. By the time he and his crew qualified for the Olympic games in 1936, Joe had overcome more obstacles than most will face in a lifetime.

When the boys arrived in Berlin, they found the city to be warm, friendly, and inviting. They, along with most of the United States, were unaware of the great lie they were being fed by the Nazis. Just weeks before their arrival, Hitler’s government was fully engaged in the severe persecution of German Jews and others to whom they thought they were superior.

The Nazis had already sent thousands of victims to detention camps where they would later be murdered, but when the world descended upon Berlin that spring, all it found was a great masquerade that was engineered by Nazi propagandists.

The medal race that took place at the regatta grounds in Grunau was one for the record books. The Americans overcame sickness, suspicious lane assignments, and other misfortunes to shock the world with a gold medal performance.

Finally Joe, who rowed not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world, did just that. This is the story of the boys in the boat.

What Seasons They Have Been Through

October 9, 1933 was a gray day in a gray time. The United States found itself in the fourth year of the Great Depression, where one in four working Americans had no job and no prospects of finding one. Whether you were a banker, a baker, a homemaker, or homeless, you could not escape the feeling that the ground could drop out from under you at any moment.

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At Washington University, Joe Rantz hurried down to a boathouse on the edge of Montlake Cut, a canal on west side of Lake Washington. He and dozens of other freshman waited patiently to begin a journey that they hoped would end with a spot on the Washington freshman rowing crew.

For Joe, however, rowing was much more than athletic competition. It guaranteed him a part-time job on campus, and that – combined with the little that he had saved up – would allow him to stay in school. Without it, his days at Washington University were numbered.

Joe came from humble origins and a troubled childhood.

His mother passed away when he was very young, and his dad Harry fled to Canada, unable to cope with the tragic loss of his wife. Joe lived with his older brother until Harry returned and they settled in Spokane.

Harry married a young woman – twenty-two years old – named Thula. Strangely enough, she was the sister of the woman that Joe’s brother had married. Thula became her twin sister’s mother-in-law. Thula could never bring herself to love Joe as she did her own children, and the constant relocation caused by Harry’s perpetual job changes took a toll on her happiness.

One day, this came to a tipping point when Thula demanded that Harry leave their home for California, and leave Joe along with it. Harry reluctantly obliged, and his parting advice to Joe was somber: “Son, if there’s one thing I’ve figured out about life,” he said, “it’s that if you want to be happy, you have to learn to be happy on your own.” These words would weigh on Joe for the remainder of his childhood.

After fending for himself in his hometown of Sequim, Washington, Joe eventually went to live with his older brother again in Seattle. His brother insisted that he attend college, and after graduating high school, Joe enrolled at Washington University.

Prior to enrollment, a man named Al Ulbrickson had approached Joe in the middle of his high school gymnastics practice and encouraged him to come out for the Washington rowing team. Once at the university, Joe took his suggestion.

Ulbrickson was the head coach of the Washington rowing team, and an accomplished oarsman himself.

\He was haunted by a disappointing previous season, and desperately needed to find a crew that could compete with their hated rival, University of California. As he stood on the dock and watched the eager crowd of freshman mill about, he could not help but feel a sense of hope that they would help bring his program to the next level.

A man named Tom Bolles coached Joe and the other freshmen. Bolles was a former Washington oarsman himself, and had been given the monumental task of turning the diverse crowd of freshman (a majority of whom had never rowed a lick in their life), into a single, eight-man freshman crew. His workouts would prove to be brutal, but rather effective when it came to weeding out those who did not have the physical strength or the will power it would take to represent Washington.

However, Bolles knew that rowing was at least as much art as brawn, and a keen intelligence was just as important as brute strength. There were a thousand and one small things that had to be learned, mastered, and brought to bear in precisely the right way to propel a twenty-four-inch-wide cedar racing shell through the water with any semblance of speed and grace.

To begin the learning process, Bolles started the boys out in the team’s venerable training barge, Old Nero. The vessel was a wide, flat-bottomed scow with a long walkway running down the middle and seats for sixteen novice oarsmen, and had been around since the early days of the Washington crew program.

It was heavy, slow, and designed in part, to push the young oarsmen to their limits. The workouts went on for three hours every evening, and as time went on, Joe began to notice fewer and fewer boys making the walk to the boathouse for practice. The harsh practices were taking their toll, and that was just fine with Joe. Hurting was nothing new for him.

On November 28, Coach Bolles told the boys to stick around as it was time to announce who had made the first and second freshman boats.

As he read aloud the names of the boys who had made the second boat, Joe’s was not among them. Fortunately, he did not have to wait long to hear his name called. He would be rowing with the first boat.

As the rest of the team hit the showers, the boys in the first boat headed to the water for a celebratory row. Out on the waters of Lake Washington, in the cool night air, Joe felt for the first time a brief sense of belonging that brought tears to his eyes.

As Joe struggled to make the crew in Seattle, five thousand miles to the east, an architect put the final touches on plans for a new Olympic stadium in Berlin. He had been commissioned by none other than the passionate new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler.

Germany would host the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and the stadium was just one of many changes the country would experience before the games began. Many of the changes would be attributed to the work of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, minister of public enlightenment and propaganda.

Around the time Joe was reporting for freshman year, Goebbels passed new Nazi National Press laws that almost eliminated freedom of press in Germany, and called for the death penalty for anyone publishing articles found to be treasonous.

Days later, Hitler abruptly quit the League of Nations and discontinued disarmament talks with France. That fall, Americans and other foreign nationals were assaulted by storm troopers when they refused to give Nazi salutes. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, the Nazis had already imprisoned thousands of political dissidents in a camp in Dachau.

As terrible as these acts appeared, they were just the beginning of what Hitler had planned for Germany, and it would be too long before they caught the attention of America and the rest of the world.

Resiliency

In 1934, collegiate rowing teams were rewarded for months of grueling preparation with a racing season that seemed to be over before it started, especially for the Western schools. They would face-off within their own program for months, but the real racing season was short and the stakes were high.

Washington’s entire season essentially came down to two major races, the Pacific Coast Regatta and the national championship race in Poughkeepsie. The Pacific Coast Regatta was a two-team duel between Washington and their archrival, California. If they prevailed in that race, they would likely earn the chance to race against Navy and the elite eastern schools for the national championship in Poughkeepsie. That was it, two races.

Joe and the boys resumed workouts after returning from Christmas break, and discovered the training program thus far had been mild when compared to what Bolles and Ulbrickson had in store for them that spring.

As the boys continued to fight for a spot on the single freshman crew that would row against Cal, Joe struggled to find consistency in his rowing form. One day Coach Bolles pulled Joe from the first boat, but to his surprise, the boat slowed down perceptibly.

When he put Joe back in, the boat sped back up. Bolles was perplexed. This inconsistency would become a common theme for the freshman boat that year. However, as the months continued, the freshman crew began to show signs of brilliance, and as they prepared to row in the Pacific Coast Regatta, Bolles was confident that his freshman boys would have what it took to knock off the highly acclaimed crew from California.

As it turned out, Bolles’ confidence in his boys was well placed.

On April 13, the boys guided the boat up to the starting line along the shore of Lake Washington. The starter barked, “Row!” At once, both teams exploded off the line, with Cal leading by a quarter length. The boats coxswains, the forward facing, non-rowing members of each team who are responsible for setting the stroke rate, began yelling orders to their oarsmen.

Cal slowed its stroke rate down to a more sustainable thirty-two strokes per minute, and Washington slowed to an easy thirty. The boats held their positions until Washington began to overtake Cal at the quarter-mile mark. As Cal raised its stroke rate, Washington continued at the same pace and increased their lead to two lengths.

In the last quarter mile, the Washington coxswain finally called for a higher stroke rate, and the Washington boys defeated Cal by a strong margin of four and a half lengths, setting a new freshman course record.

After the victory over Cal, the freshman fell into another slump. Again, Bolles could not comprehend how a team who had defeated their rival by such a large margin, could suddenly fall apart at the seams and row so terribly. However, just as they had against Cal, the freshmen pulled it all together again before the looming national championship race.

The race in Poughkeepsie was attended by tens of thousands of fans and rivaled the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl, and the World Series as a major national sporting event. Historically dominated by the elite eastern schools, the fans were used to seeing the sons of senators, businessmen, and presidents out on the water.

However, with the rise of the western rowing programs, the regatta began to look more like a clash of Eastern privilege versus Western sincerity and brawn.

It was on this stage that the freshmen boys from Washington would introduce themselves to the rest of the nation in a spectacular way.

As per usual, Washington fell behind immediately after the starting pistol fired, but they soon regained ground on the race favorite, Syracuse. By the mile and a half mark, Washington had a two and a half length lead over Syracuse, who was now in second place. In the final stretch, the coxswain called on the boys to give it all they had, and Washington passed the finish line an astonishing five lengths ahead of Syracuse.

Tom Bolles’ boys had caught the attention of the press and race fans from around the world, but it wasn’t the margin of victory that people marveled at. It was how the boys had rowed the race. From the starting gun to the finish line, they had rowed as if they could keep going at the same pace for another two miles or ten.

There is a term used in rowing to describe the rare phenomenon of an eight-man boat that is in perfect harmony, to the point where the oarsmen no longer feel the physical pain of rowing, but instead feel the joy of being a part of something that transcends the physical act of pulling an oar through the water. This is referred to as “swing,” and the freshmen had found it.

After the freshmen race, the JV and Varsity crews would have their turn.

Coached by Ulbrickson, the JV crew won their race, but Varsity lost yet again. This loss would eat at Ulbrickson throughout the next rowing season.

Joe spent his summer after Poughkeepsie back in Sequim, working to fund another year of school. Over the summer, Joe learned that his father, Thula, and his stepsiblings were living in Seattle the whole time, but had never once tried to reach out to him.

One day at the beginning of the school year, Joe and Joyce, his fiancé, drove to Seattle to see his family. Unfortunately, Thula opened the door and after a few minutes of strained conversation, she refused to let him inside to see his stepsiblings. This encounter proved to be a source of frustration and turmoil in the upcoming rowing season.

In Germany, a woman by the name of Leni Riefenstahl was making a name for herself as a propaganda filmmaker. Early in her career, her work caught the eye of Hitler and the two became close friends.

He would eventually commission her to document the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. The film that would eventually emerge from this, Triumph of the Will, would come to define the iconography of Nazi Germany. It was an anthem to power and a carefully designed tool for further concentrating and advancing it.

Triumph of the Will is still considered by many to be the most successful propaganda film of all time. As the planning for the 1936 Olympics was underway, Hitler recruited Leni once again to create a propaganda film showing the grandeur of the Berlin Olympics and the welcoming spirit of the German people.

Meanwhile in the US, if conditions had improved, it was not by much. Dust storms were causing chaos across the Midwest, sending thousands of families packing towards the relatively more prosperous West Coast. This made the job market in Seattle much more competitive once again.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was being put into action and on August 4, 1934 Roosevelt gave a speech that laid out the plans for a new Grand Coulee Dam in Washington.

This dam would create work for thousands of people, and for the first time in a while, people in the area had a hint of hope. If there was little they could do individually to turn the situation around, perhaps there was something they could do collectively.

The Parts That Really Matter

Sophomore year brought a new set of challenges for Joe and the fellow oarsmen that had raced alongside him last spring. All summer, Al Ulbrickson had read opinion pieces from sportswriters insisting he promote the entire freshman (now sophomore) rowing crew to race as the Varsity.

Though this would be a break from standard procedure, Ulbrickson was privately beginning to feel as if it was the best move he could make. Publicly however, he kept his cards close to his chest and did not reveal his intentions.

At the beginning of the year, he announced that boat members would be set from the beginning, and that there would be competition between the five boats. The fastest crew by the beginning of racing season would get the coveted Varsity spot.

Though he intended to create competition within the Washington boathouse, what he caused was all out war. Tempers flared as rumors of Al favoring the sophomores were circulated throughout the boathouse. To mitigate this, Ulbrickson listed the sophomores as the fifth boat, but this did not seem to fool any of the older boys.

To cap things off, Ulbrickson gathered the boys after the winter break and announced his intentions of sending a team to the Berlin Olympics in a year and a half, and made clear his goal of winning a gold medal.

Somewhere among them, he told the boys, was the greatest crew that Washington had ever seen. It was up to them to determine who that was.

As the months went on, two boats began to emerge as the top candidates for the Varsity crew, the same group of sophomores that won at Poughkeepsie and a boat of older boys that was shaping up to be the best of the JV boats. Competition between the two turned fierce. As the Pacific Coast Regatta drew nearer, Ulbrickson began staging time trials between the two crews.

One day, the sophomores would beat the JV boys handily, then the next they would fall apart and lose by several lengths. Ulbrickson had honestly expected the sophomores to be the clear victors by this point, but that was simply not the case. Their inconsistency frustrated him tremendously.

Finally, the Pacific Coast Regatta arrived and Ulbrickson was forced to make a decision. He elected to hold one last time trial, the winner of which would row as the varsity against Cal. The JV boys were victorious in this race, but Al still had his doubts.

So, he broke the news to the older boys that the sophomores would race as Varsity. Understandably so, they were furious, and used that frustration to win their JV race by an astounding eight lengths. They had proven their point to their coach. However, the sophomores did not let Ulbrickson down, also winning their race.

Washington had swept the regatta and all was well for the time being. After this race, a banquet was held for the team at the Washington Athletic Club, during which each boy was individually recognized in front of a cheering crowd.

The applause startled Joe, but at the same time it also filled him with gratitude, and for the first time he felt a sudden surge of something unfamiliar – a sense of pride that was deeper and more heartfelt than any he had ever felt before. Now it was on to Poughkeepsie, and then maybe even Berlin. Everything finally seemed to be starting to turn golden.

That feeling was short lived. Not surprisingly, the sophomores fell into yet another slump after beating Cal. This time it appeared to be more serious, and as Poughkeepsie drew near, Ulbrickson decided that he had no choice but to row the older boys as the Varsity crew.

On the day of the race, the sophomores’ confidence was shaken by the demotion, but they pulled things together to win the race by a comfortable two lengths. The Varsity however, faced a tough task in beating the crews from Cornell and Cal.

They were not up to the challenge, and after tiring out by the third mile, were beaten soundly by their opponents. Once again, Ulbrickson came up short of winning the Varsity national championship and sweeping the regatta. Frustrated with this fact, Ulbrickson would seek advice from a boat builder by the name of George Pocock to help him diagnose the inconsistency problems with a few of his oarsmen. Number one on this list was Joe Rantz.

George Pocock was all but born with an oar in his hands.

Born in Great Britain, his father built racing shells for Eton College. Pocock grew up in a small house across the river from Eton’s boathouse, and learned to row at an early age. Not only did George study the art of boat building, but he also studied the unique rowing style of the Thames watermen and adapted it to the purpose of racing in a shell.

Using his own technique, he won several major regattas in Britain. As he grew older, his boat building skills gained international attention and he was eventually offered the chance to move to Seattle and build a large order of boats for the Washington crew team.

From his shop above the Washington shell house, he continued to build world-class boats for universities across the nation, but he also served as a sort of informal advisor to the Washington crew. When asked, he would offer his advice on technique and rowing strategy. This time, he was asked to take a hard look at Joe Rantz.

The sophomore season had been rough on Joe. The constant cycle of promotion and demotion took a toll on his confidence, and when combined with the turmoil of a broken family, it was not hard to see why his rowing was so inconsistent.

After his win at Poughkeepsie, Joe went to work on the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam and absolutely loved the experience. The work was hot and physical, but like the rowing workouts, it gave him a sense of clarity and accomplishment afterwards.

While working at the dam, Joe made friends with two of the boys who were his JV rivals just a month before. All of the sudden, the fierce competitions on the water seemed rather trivial. The friendships he developed that summer would prove to be a great source of comfort for him later on.

After returning from the dam, Joe decided to pay his dad a visit for the first time since he left him on the front porch in Sequim years ago.

The reunion was not much more than a quick hello, but it seemed to help Joe. Thula would still not allow him to see his stepsiblings, but his dad secretly agreed to let him visit the kids when he and Thula were away. Joe and Joyce began to make visits to them regularly.

On a bright, crisp September morning, Pocock noticed Joe doing sit-ups on a bench in the shell house. Pocock asked Joe if he would like to come up and see his workshop, and Joe curiously bounded up the steps to his shop. After showing Joe all the tools he used to craft his shells, Pocock paused and turned the conversation to a new depth.

He told Joe, “The craft of building a boat is like a religion. It isn’t enough to master the technical details of it. You have to give yourself up to it spiritually. When you are done, you have to feel that you have left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart.

Rowing,” he said, “is like that. Do you know what I mean Joe?” Joe nodded his head, but was not certain that he did. He went downstairs and resumed his sit-ups, trying to work it out.

Across the pond in Germany, Hitler hosted his seventh annual Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. The rally reached its climax on the night of September 15, when Hitler introduced two new laws that even Leni Riefenstahl would attempt to distance herself from in later years.

The Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor effectively stripped German Jews of any rights they had left as a German citizen. They lost citizenship, the right to marry non-Jews, and many other associated liberties.

And this was just the beginning. Over the coming months, the Reichstag would add dozens of additional laws restricting the lives of German Jews until, in effect, simply being Jewish was outlawed.

In the United States, talks of boycotting the 1936 Olympics had been simmering since the Nazi party had come into power.

Now, in parts of the country, it began to boil. However, on December 8, the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States voted on a resolution to send a three-man committee to Germany to investigate claims of Nazi maltreatment of Jews.

The resolution failed to pass and with that, the boycott effort failed and the Americans were sending a team to Germany. What remained was to select the athletes worthy of carrying the American flag into the heart of the Nazi state.

Touching the Divine

When the oarsmen reported to the shell house for the beginning of fall workouts, there was no fiery speech from Al Ulbrickson about the Olympic glory they hoped to achieve. There was no need for it. Everyone knew exactly what the stakes were this year.

Ulbrickson did however, announce that he would move away from the set crew strategy that he used in the previous season. Rowers would constantly be moved from boat to boat until he found the right combination of oarsmen.

They would also begin rowing two thousand meter Olympic sprints along with the four-mile races to which they were accustomed. The boat that emerged as the fastest would be the one to take them to Berlin.

Joe began the season in the number one boat, but quickly fell to the second crew.

A week later he found himself bouncing back and forth between the third and fourth boats. His rowing suffered from the hit that his confidence took, but it wasn’t just the boat assignments that ate at Joe that fall. What was eating at him now wasn’t so much a fear of failing as a creeping sense of loss.

He missed the low-key camaraderie that had grown among his sophomore classmates after two years of rowing – and winning – together. When he was abandoned in Sequim, he promised himself he’d never depend on anyone else, not even on Joyce, for his happiness or his sense of who he was. He began to see that he’d done just that, with the usual painful results.

Then the ground under Joe positively lurched. On October 25, when he arrived back at the shell house after a workout, his brother Fred was waiting for him. He’d gotten a call from Harry at the hospital. Thula was dead. Septicemia caused by an obstructed bowel.

Joe felt a sense of loss, but he mostly worried about his father, and even more about his half siblings. If there was one thing he knew, it was what it was like for a child to be motherless. Joe went to visit his family and console the kids.

While visiting, his father told Joe, “Son, I’ve got a plan. I’m going to build a house where we can all live together. As soon as it’s done, I want you to come home.” Joe was dumbstruck and muttered out a non-committal answer.

A month later, Harry had begun construction on the new house and Joe visited to help out. He was still trying to process the situation and found himself standing alone in the Seattle rain, watching the drops hit the water from the dock, attempting to sort out the mess in his heart. He stared at the water pondering words of advice that George Pocock had given him the day before.

Pocock told Joe that there were times when he seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat, as if it was up to him to row the boat across the finish line all by himself. He suggested that Joe think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra.

What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them.

For Joe, who had spent the last six years doggedly making his own way in the world, who had forged his identity on stoic self-reliance, nothing was more frightening than allowing himself to depend on others. But from that point forward, Joe began to see the truth in Pocock’s words, and his feelings began to shift – moving around like notes on a musical staff, bits and pieces of new themes starting to fall into place.

Joe was in the third boat.

And it looked as if he’d be staying there. Then, on March 21, Ulbrickson moved him into the first boat. This new boat was made up partially of the sophomores he had rowed with last season, the two friends he worked with at the Grand Coulee Dam, and two more boys with whom he had not rowed.

Joe didn’t know if Pocock had talked to Ulbrickson or if Ulbrickson simply needed someone else for the number seven seat that day. Whatever the reason, this was his chance, and he took it.

Joe never left the first boat again, and by the time the Pacific Coast Regatta came around, the crew had found their swing. They beat Cal by a commanding three lengths, leading Ulbrickson to believe (privately of course) that they were rowing better than ever before.

Things were clicking off of the water as well. The boys began to develop a deep level of trust amongst each other, and spent a great deal of time together. This trust would be a necessity if they hoped to win at Poughkeepsie and again at the Olympic trials in Princeton.

Less than an hour before the Varsity race at Poughkeepsie, Al Ulbrickson reflected on the gravity of the next race.

With Washington victories from the freshmen and JV crews, Washington once more stood on the brink of sweeping the regatta. Ulbrickson had yet another opportunity to win his first varsity national championship, and above all, the Olympic trials loomed just two weeks away. Nearly everything Al Ulbrickson wanted out of life was going to be determined in the next twenty minutes.

For five full strokes after the starting gun, all seven teams remained absolutely abreast of one another. Then Washington suddenly eased up. They fell into last place, but that was ok with coxswain Bobby Moch.

He and Ulbrickson had agreed on a race strategy the night before that would have the boys conserving as much energy as they could, then sprinting at the end of the race.

As the race drew on however, Moch continued to hold the Washington crew back to a leisurely twenty-eight. By the three- mile marker, Coach Ulbrickson was in shock. This was not the race plan they had discussed the previous night. Moch had waited far too long to regain the lead from the others. There was just too much distance to make up.

Then Moch finally showed his hand and called for the boys to make their move. The boat lurched forward and began to close on the leaders. Washington worked their stroke rate up to a grueling forty.

In the last two hundred meters they overtook Cal for the lead and stunned crew fans across the nation. Ulbrickson had finally won the Varsity national championship and his boys would race in two weeks for the chance to go to Berlin.

When the crew arrived at Princeton, there was a quiet calm amongst them.

This was the regatta that would set them down the path to history. Six teams were competing for the right to go to Berlin: Washington, California, Penn, Navy, Princeton, and the New York Athletic Club. Of these teams, Washington was the only crew made up entirely of undergraduate students.

In their preliminary heat, they would face Princeton and the Winged Footers of the New York Athletic Club. Neither would prove to be a challenge for the Washington crew that was now rowing with unmatched grace and power. The boys won their heat by two and a half lengths.

In the finals, Washington would face off against Cal, Penn, and the New York Athletic Club, representing the first and second place teams from the previous day’s trials. The boys were nervous, but confident. This would be their day of judgment.

The starting gun popped and Washington got off to a poor start.

Two of the boys “washed out,” their oars popping out of the water before they had completed their pulls. This threw off the crucial momentum that they were trying to build up at the start of the race. Bobby Moch brought the stroke rate up to thirty-nine to regain momentum, then slowly dropped it down to thirty-four.

But what a thirty-four it was. From the banks of Lake Carnegie, the boat looked like a single thing, gracefully and powerfully coiling and uncoiling itself, propelling itself over the surface of the water.

With the last five hundred meters approaching, Moch still had not turned the boys loose yet. Finally he did, and they blew past the exhausted boys from Penn. They finished one length ahead, and were still widening their lead. It was official. The rag-tag team of country boys from Seattle would represent the United States in Berlin.

On March 7, thirty thousand German troops had rolled into the de-militarized Rhineland, in open defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. It was by far the most brazen thing Hitler had yet attempted, his biggest gamble, and a major step toward the catastrophe that was soon to envelop the world.

Hitler would watch tensely, waiting for a potential reaction from his soon to be enemies. He needn’t have worried. No country took any action against him. However, Nazi leadership was now convinced that the upcoming Olympic games in August would provide the perfect opportunity for a masquerade.

Germany would present herself to the world as an unusually clean, efficient, modern, technologically savvy, cultured, vigorous, reasonable, and hospitable nation. Hitler began the transformation by ordering his SA troopers to arrest all of the Gypsies from their shanties and wagons, and move them to a detention camp.

They would later be sent to death camps and murdered. The focus then turned to hiding all of the anti-sematic policies that had been put into place in recent years. Signs reading, “The Jews Are Our Misfortune” were taken down. Anti-sematic propaganda newspapers were replaced with publications that told Germans how to conduct themselves around Jews while the foreigners were in Berlin.

The entire city of Berlin was cleaned and cleaned again, then decorated with Swastika flags. The set was ready and as the Americans approached on their ship the SS Manhattan, the first act in a grand play was ready to begin.

On the boat to Germany, the boys met for the first time the other American athletes who would be competing in Berlin.

Through their interactions with the athletes and other US citizens, the boys began to come to terms with a humbling realization. They were now representatives of something much larger than themselves – a way of life, a shared set of values.

Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together – trust in each other, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another – those were also part of what America meant to all of them. And right along with a passion for liberty, those were the things that they were about to take to Berlin and lay before the world when they took to the water at Grunau.

Once they landed in Germany, the crew found the German people and culture to be welcoming and jolly.

The boys would fall into a routine of rowing in the mornings, then going into town in the evenings for entertainment.

Their rowing performance however, was not nearly as pleasing. After weeks aboard the SS Manhattan, almost all of the boys had gained weight and lost their form. Don Hume, who rowed in the number eight seat, had come down with some kind of cold and was fighting a fever.

Hume was a vital member of the crew, as he filled the position of stroke oar. The stroke oar sat in the back of the boat, next to the coxswain, and was responsible for setting the stroke with powerful precision. As far as stroke oars went, Hume was arguably the best around, and the boys desperately needed him to be at one hundred percent. His sickness concerned everyone, including Al Ulbrickson.

But Hume’s sickness and the boat’s poor performance were not the only things troubling Ulbrickson. The competition in Berlin would be fierce. As Ulbrickson scouted the other crews, this became clear. The Germans were extremely disciplined, and the Italian crew included four veterans from the 1932 Olympic team that won a silver medal. Above all, the British were the “team to beat” in Berlin.

Rowing was a quintessentially British sport, and the oarsmen and coxswain were carefully selected from Oxford and Cambridge. Claiming victory over the Brits would be a monumental task.

And then there was the matter of the racecourse. The course at Grunau was six lanes wide, but the outermost two lanes – lanes five and six – were so exposed to the prevailing winds on the Langer See that they were at times all but un-rowable. Ulbrickson had fought Olympic officials to rule the two lanes out of commission, but to no avail. All six lanes would be used.

With six days to go before their preliminary race, Ulbrickson decided to make a change. The boys would no longer be allowed to go into town in the evenings. This punishment seemed to do the trick. They began to regain their form and timing, and though Hume was still not over his sickness, they were more confident going into the preliminary round. Everything began to feel right again.

By the rules devised for the 1936 Olympic rowing regatta, each of the fourteen teams would have two chances to make it into the medal race. If a crew won its first preliminary race, it would proceed directly to the medal round, and have a precious day off.

Each of the losing crews would re-race on the following day and the winners would move on to the medal round. The Americans would race against France, Japan, Czechoslovakia, and the crew they were most concerned about, Great Britain.

With the boat finally performing as it should, Al Ulbrickson did what he always did before big races: he backed off the training and, except for some light paddling, he told the boys to rest up for their first race.

By the day of the preliminary, Don Hume had lost a worrisome 14 pounds from his normal weight and was running a low fever. Ulbrickson kept him in bed for as long as he could, then rousted him out and put him on the bus, with the rest of the boys, headed for the regatta.

The race started at 5:15 exactly.

The American boys got away badly once again. Just as at Princeton, someone in the middle of the boat washed out on the first or second stroke.

The Americans found themselves in last place, rowing at thirty-eight. Moch and Hume kept the rate up until the passed the Czechs at three hundred meters. The Japanese rowed at a very high stroke rate and remained in first place. But neither Moch nor the British coxswain was worried about the Japanese. They were worried about each other.

The two boats held their positions relative to each other for another seven hundred meters. Moch told Hume to raise the stroke rate, to see what would happen. The U.S. boat crept up to within a half-length of the British stern. The Brits raised their stroke count to check the Americans’ advance.

Both teams were holding back. Finally with 250 meters to go, Moch shouted, “Now boys. Now!” and the Americans began to move on the British. Still, the British boat remained out front, but the American boys had found their swing and they were holding on to it.

They were rowing as hard as they had ever rowed, taking huge sweeping cuts at the water, over and over again, rocking into the beat as if they were forged together, approaching forty strokes per minute. In the last twenty strokes, they powered past the British boat and across the finish line.

A moment later, Don Hume pitched forward and collapsed across his oar. It took Moch a full minute of splashing water on Hume’s face to wake him up. When the boys arrived at the shell house, they received sweet news. They had set a new world and Olympic record.

The boys went to bed that night satisfied with their accomplishment.

The British would now have to row again the next day and win if they were to be one of the final six boats in the medal race. The American boys would have the day off. Things looked good for the boys from Washington, but the odds would turn against them soon enough.

The night after the race, Don Hume looked like death risen. Whatever he had, it was clearly more than just a cold – perhaps a bronchial infection or walking pneumonia. Either way, Ulbrickson had to figure out who was going to stroke the boat when the boys raced for gold in forty-eight hours.

Things became even more concerning when Ulbrickson learned the lane assignment for the medal race. By this point, it was well established that the closest, most protected lanes were the fastest, and the farther lanes produced slower times.

The German Olympic Committee and Federation Internationale des Societes d’Aviron had implemented new rules for lane selection, rules never used before in Olympic competition. Ulbrickson did not understand the formula, and to this day it is unclear how it worked or whether there was really a formula at all.

Nonetheless, Ulbrickson was furious when he saw the assignment. Lane one: Germany; lane two: Italy; lane three: Switzerland; lane four: Hungary; lane five: Great Britain; lane six: The United States. It gave the protected lanes to the host country and her closest ally, and the worst lanes to her prospective enemies. It was deeply suspicious, and just what Ulbrickson had feared when first seeing the course at Grunau.

The next morning, Hume lay in bed with a spiking fever.

Ulbrickson broke the news to the crew. Hume would not race in the medal round that afternoon. He would be replaced by Don Coy, an alternate oarsman. The boys were shocked. This was the day that they had worked for years to reach and it was inconceivable that they would not be in the boat together for the last race. After giving Ulbrickson the old “He rows or no one rows” ultimatum, Al decided to put Hume back into the race.

Adolf Hitler entered the regatta grounds, followed by a large entourage of Nazi officials. The racing paused and the crowd thundered, “Sieg Heil!” until Hitler finally lowered his salute.

The crowd soon had plenty of reason to make more noise. By the time the eight-man crews assembled at the starting line, Germany had won gold in the first five races. Hitler was beside himself with pride. Meanwhile, the Americans coaches were grim faced.

Good as their boys were, they figured their chances of taking the gold were slim to none – not out in lane six and not with Don Hume looking like a dead man. In Seattle, and in living rooms across the world, people crowded around radio sets and listened as the crews navigated into the starting launch.

As the boys went through their normal pre-race preparation, the starter suddenly emerged from his shelter, holding a flag aloft. The flag snapped wildly above his head for a moment.

Almost immediately, he turned slightly in the direction of lanes one and two, shouted into the wind in one continuous, unbroken utterance, “Etes-vous prets? Partez!” and dropped the flag. Bobby Moch never heard him. Never saw the flag. Neither, apparently, did the British coxswain. Four boats surged forward. The British and American boats, for a horrific moment, sat motionless at the line, dead in the water.

Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw the other boats spring forward and bellowed, “Lets get out of here!” They were already a stroke and a half behind in the race of their lives.

Moch yelled at Hume to crank up the stroke rate to a hard thirty-eight. After building momentum, the Americans lowered the rate and settled into the rear of the field. All six boats were loosely bunched up, but the Germans held a slight lead.

Three hundred meters out, Bobby Moch saw something that chilled him to the bone. Don Hume suddenly went white in the face and all but closed his eyes. Moch yelled at him, “Don! Are you ok?” and received no response.

Hume continued to row, but Moch doubted whether Hume would even finish the race, let alone sprint when the end of the race came. By eight hundred meters, the Americans remained in last place. The Brits had taken the lead from the Germans, but only by a second. Ulbrickson’s boys were nearly five full seconds behind the leaders now. Moch could not afford to wait any longer.

“Higher!” he shouted into Hume’s face. No response. “Higher, Don! Higher!” he screamed, pleading now. Hume’s head rocked back and forth with the rhythm of the boat so that Moch couldn’t even make eye contact with him. The boys continued to row at thirty-five, losing their battle with the wind, and nearly every other boat on the water.

Moch tried to fight off panic. Joe had no idea where the team stood in relation to other crews, but knew that he had been rowing hard against the wind all the way. There had been no real opportunity to conserve energy. He wondered if they would have enough left to make a final sprint at the end. All he could do was trust Moch’s judgment.

As they approached the twelve-hundred-meter mark, Hume was still not responding to Moch.

As a last resort, Moch leaned forward to tell Joe that he would have to set the stroke. All of a sudden, Hume’s head snapped up, his eyes popped open, he clamped his mouth shut, and he looked Moch straight in the eyes. Hume picked up the pace.

By the fifteen-hundred-meter mark, they had eased into third place. They were still a full length behind the leaders. As the neared on the last two hundred meters, Moch began to calculate just what he needed to get out of the boys to finish first. It was time to start lying.

Moch barked, “Twenty more strokes!” He started counting them down, but would restart the count every time they hit fifteen. As they approached the finish line, the crowd was so loud that they could no longer hear Moch’s orders.

They were in full sprint mode, but Moch looked over at the surging German and Italian boats and knew that they would have to go even higher. They would have to give it even more than they were giving, even as he knew they were already giving everything they had.

He banged on the side of the boat to get the message across. Immediately the boys knew what he meant. The boys hit a stroke rate of forty-four. They had never been this high before. Their muscles screamed in agony. They gave one last mighty stroke and hurled the boat across the line. In the span of a single second, the German, Italian, and American boats all crossed the line.

Someone in the boat whispered, “Who won?” Another answered, “Well… we did… I think.” Finally the loudspeakers crackled back to life with the official results. The bow of the American boat had touched the line six-tenths of a second ahead of the Italian boat and exactly a second ahead of the Germans.

The chanting of the crowd faded suddenly, as if turned off by a spigot. From his balcony over the finish line, Hitler turned and strode back into the building, not speaking. It took the American boys a moment to understand the announcement in German. When they did, their grimaces of pain turned into bright white smiles, smiles that decades later would flicker across old newsreels, illuminating the greatest moment of their lives.

As Joe lay in his bunk that night, he reflected on the day he was about to close. Immediately after the race, even as he sat gasping for air, an expansive sense of calm had enveloped him. In the white-hot emotional furnace of those final meters at Grunau, Joe and the boys had finally forged the prize they had sought all season, the prize Joe had sought nearly all his life. It was not the medal. Now Joe felt whole. He was ready to go home.

Closing

Within days of concluding the 1936 Olympic games, the Nazi party resumed their persecution of the Jews and others to whom they believed they were superior. The Anti-sematic signs were re-hung; the brutality and terror resumed and intensified. The larger world knew nothing of this. Hitler had artfully accomplished what all good propagandists must, convincing the world that his version of reality was reasonable.

This true saga of the boys from the University of Washington makes for great entertainment.

There will, undoubtedly, be a movie made about their path to gold in Berlin. There is more to the story, however, than just the epic showdowns on the regatta course. Like the water they raced on, the lessons learned go much deeper than the surface.

Theirs is a story about liberty and the power of a nation united under one set of shared values. It is a story about overcoming insurmountable odds and the grit and willpower of world champions. It is a story of the hardships of an era that may seem distant to most men and women of my generation.

It is a story about the greatest lie the world has ever been told, and the consequences of blissful ignorance. Most of all, it is a story of nine young men who found the courage to completely surrender their instinctive self-reliance and instead, give themselves completely to the boat and its ultimate mission. This is how they accomplished the impossible. Eighty years later, the world would be wise to learn from the boys in the boat.

HookedtoBooks.com would like to thank the Titans of Investing for allowing us to publish this content.  Titans is a student organization founded by Britt Harris. Learn more about the organization and the man behind it by clicking either of these links.

Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books.  We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.

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