“Where is the spiritual value of rowing?…The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.” George Yeoman Pocock
Once in a while, a group of ordinary individuals comes together and achieves something extraordinary. It’s a phenomenon that might appear magical, but certainly doesn’t happen by chance. It takes enormous resolve and unwavering trust to create a team that is more than the sum of its parts. In The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown tells the story of one such team – nine young men from the University of Washington who rowed against all odds to win gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Do you remember the Dream Team from the 1992 Olympics? It was the first time the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team included professional players, and its roster was like a Who’s Who of National Basketball Association superstars. Many considered it to be the greatest sports team ever assembled.
By those standards, the men’s crew team representing the U.S. in 1936 wasn’t exactly a Dream Team. It was comprised of an underfunded group of working class boys, most of whom had never even held an oar before attending college. They possessed only strong backs, long limbs and an intense desire to succeed – none more so than Joe Rantz, whose experience provides the foundation for this remarkable story.
Joe endured a childhood of grinding poverty and appalling neglect. He tried out for the Husky crew team mainly to qualify for a part-time job on campus, but instead found a place where he truly belonged, amidst a cast of memorable real-life characters: Freshman Coach Tom Bolles, with his battered lucky fedora; kindhearted crewmate Shorty Hunt; wily coxswain Bobby Moch; notoriously taciturn Head Coach Al Ulbrickson. But the most influential presence of all was George Pocock, the British expat who handcrafted racing shells in a workshop over the boathouse. An expert boatbuilder and oarsman, Pocock was a keen observer of character and a wellspring of wisdom and understanding.
Brown’s astonishingly detailed research and engaging descriptions quickly immerse readers in the sport of rowing and the world of the 1930’s. In fact, it would be difficult to fully appreciate the magnitude of the Huskies’ achievement without this richly illustrated backdrop. We get to know Joe and his teammates as they rise from the utter desperation of the Great Depression. We follow them as they challenge the negative perceptions held by their elite, East Coast competitors. And we wait with bated breath on the shores of the Langer See as they win the gold medal, despite Hitler’s meticulous designs to make the Olympics a showcase of Nazi preeminence. Their victory exposed the futility of Hitler’s efforts and demonstrated something that George Pocock knew all along – that true unity can only be achieved by mutual trust, not by force.
In his prologue, Brown recounts that when he told Joe that he was interested in writing a book about his rowing days, Joe replied, “But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.” During their conversation, Brown says, “…I realized that ‘the boat’ was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both – it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience…”
An experience that, thanks to Brown, readers are fortunate enough to share as well.