By Dick Stark
Note: I just finished reading Daniel James Brown’s new book, the Boys in the Boat, about nine Americans and their quest for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This is a must read, but Warning: the following contains spoilers…..
The Boys in the Boat is the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their journey from humble beginning during the great depression in Seattle. Like similar books during that that time period, e.g., Unbroken about Louis Zamperini, who also qualified for the 1936 Olympics, and then was later captured by the Japanese during WWII, and SeaBiscuit, the best horse in America in 1938, The Boys in the Boat provides hope for all Americans about the ability to triumph despite the odds.
Even though I’m from the state of Washington, this story was new to me. I especially enjoyed learning about eight-oar crew. It is a fascinating story about the sport, and in particular Joe Rantz, whose mother died, and then was later abandoned by his Father and Stepmother, Amazingly Joe made it into the University of Washington, the varsity Crew, and finally the Olympics. There is plenty of drama along the way: their close races with Cal Berkley at the National racing championships in Poughkeepsie, NY, the Olympic trials, and of course their final race at the Berlin Olympics.
The book is really about optimism, discipline, teamwork and leadership. Fractions of seconds matter, and the eight oarsmen, and coxswain must work together as a team, all pulling in perfect harmony. Every detail of every stroke has to be synchronized across eight oars, and it has to happen over and over again in rapid succession. For example, if one of the eight “catches a crab,” have his oar enter the water at the wrong, time, the race may be lost. Did I mention drama?
After arriving in Germany, their best oarsman, Don Hume became so ill he could not get out of bed. Although the coach made the decision to replace him with an alternate, the rest of the team informed the coach that they would not compete without him. “We’re all in this together and we will win or lose as a team.” Don Hume was not replaced.
After winning their qualifying heat with the fastest time, the Americans should have received the best lane assignment. But this was Nazi Germany, and somehow the Germans gave the fastest lane to their own team and the slowest lane to the Americans. Based upon the way the wind blew the day of the race, the Americans figured that this was at least a two-length disadvantage.
Despite all this adversity, the boys in the boat caught the Germans at the finish line to win the Gold, right in front of Adolf Hitler.
The author summed up his book, this way, “Championship crews have to become one, single entity. Each individual oarsman has to subsume his or her individual ego to the common effort. And in that sense, I think the story of the 1936 crew illustrates what Americans can do when they join in a common effort, when they literally climb in a boat and pull together”