THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. By Daniel James Brown. Viking. 416 pages. $28.95.
Before March Madness and the Super Bowl ever existed, the big-time sports that mattered to most Americans included boxing, horse racing and, yes, collegiate rowing.
Tens of thousands of spectators would line the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for the national championships, which drew coverage that matched the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl or the World Series.
The greatest eight-oar crew may well have been the scrappy underdogs from the University of Washington who won the 1936 championship and went on to take the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in a thrilling competition in Adolph Hitler’s Berlin.
Daniel James Brown’s account of how blue-collar oarsmen with roots in lumber mills, dairy farms, shipyards and mining camps prevailed over teams from elite Eastern colleges and went on to the Olympics is set against the grim realities of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany. This riveting and inspiring saga evokes that of Seabiscuit, another upstart that came out of the West.
The central figure in the book is Joe Rantz, who endured a Dickensian childhood before being abandoned by his impoverished family and left to fend for himself. Rowing provided an antidote to life’s hardships and imbued Rantz with a sense of purpose and the opportunity for a college education.
“The brutal afternoon workouts left him exhausted and sore but feeling cleansed, as if someone had scrubbed out his soul with a wire brush,” wrote Brown, who met and interviewed Rantz as he was dying of heart disease at the home of his daughter, a neighbor of the author.
Other characters who come to life in the book include Al Ulbrickson, the Huskies coach whose quiet demeanor didn’t mask his determination to win Olympic gold, a feat that archrival University of California had accomplished twice. There is also the team’s mentor, British-born George Yeoman Pocock, the renowned designer of racing shells who offers valuable lessons about rowing and life to Rantz and other team members.
Brown identifies crew as the toughest of all sports, one that tests the limits of human endurance. His fast-paced book skillfully lays out the mechanics of rowing, the secrets of boat design and the blend of power, stamina, will and intellect required to produce a champion. Above all is the need for teamwork, the ability of the crew to work in unison and achieve that degree of perfection known as “swing,” where everyone on the boat is in sync.
Readers need neither background nor interest in competitive rowing to be captivated by this remarkable and beautifully crafted history. Written with the drama of a compelling novel, it’s a quintessentially American story that burnishes the esteem in which we embrace what has come to be known as the Greatest Generation.