Monday, June 22, 2015

The Boys in the Boat

About the only thing that most of us remember about the Berlin 1936 Olympics games today is the amazing performance that track star Jesse Owens, much to Adolph Hitler's chagrin, turned in for the United States.  Now, Daniel James Brown has written a book, The Boys in the Boat that might just change that - at least for a while.  Brown's book is subtitled: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Games.  It has been almost eighty years since these young rowers won gold and their story is understandably a largely forgotten one.  Well, it is time to fix that.

By the time they arrived in Berlin, the men, all of them University of Washington students, had already accomplished more than they ever had a right to dream of accomplishing.  The 1930s was still a time when rowing was considered to be a rich man's sport, a sport firmly established on the East Coast and dominated by the elite universities there.  Rowers were most often sons of the upper classes.  Their fathers were doctors, lawyers, politicians, and multi-millionaires.  No way should a rowing team from the West, one composed of the sons of farmers, loggers, shipbuilders, and other blue-collar workers be able to compete consistently with the boys of the East.

Coaches at the University of Washington and at the University of California were determined to change both the perception of their skill levels and the results of direct competition with their East Coast rivals.  As the 1936 Olympics approached, they had accomplished both goals in spades.  Not only did they start dominating the East Coast competitions, they so thoroughly dominated them that they convinced that region's sports writers that they would continue to do so for years to come. 

The University of Washington and the University of California were lucky to have each other.  Their head coaches were intimately familiar with each other's reputation, style, and tactics and the competitive rivalry that developed between their rowing teams was good for both schools.  In fact, if they had not had each other, neither school is likely to have accomplished what it did.  The schools were also very lucky that both had a head coach destined to make the National Rowing Hall of Fame: Washington's Al Ulbrickson and California's "Ky" Ebright.  And, as it turned out, rowing coaches across the U.S (and, eventually, elsewhere) were lucky to have George Yeoman Pocock, builder of the fastest racing boats in the world, come along when he did.

Daniel James Brown
Pocock, a Brit who found his way from Canada to the University of Washington campus, was far more than just a boat builder.  Even though he provided his boats to other schools and racing teams, Pocock became Coach Ulbrickson's right hand man, someone whose observations and suggestions the coach depended upon and of which he took full advantage.  What happened at the 1936 games almost certainly would not have happened without Pocock's help.

 In The Boys in the Boat, the author, with particular help from the daughter of rower Joe Rantz, delves deeply into the personalities and make-up of the members of the medal-winning team.  At times, in fact, the novel is so personal and so well researched that it reads more like a novel than a nonfiction sporting history.  It is an unforgettable piece of writing that I recommend to readers of all types.  You most certainly do not have to be a sports fan or someone who reads little other than history to enjoy The Boys in the Boat.  Please don't miss this one. 


  1. Who would have thought this story would have been compelling enough to fill a whole book? I remember consciously passing on this back when it came out, but after reading your post here and the other two recommendations on it from this past week, from friends who have read it, it's definitely going on my list. It must be something special to move beyond just a "feel good" story, which is what I had it pegged as.

    1. It is definitely more than a "feel good story," Trav. It is a very well written account of a time when things were both simpler and more difficult. The world was in a crazy place in the 1930s, and these young men still managed to make the most of where they were and what they had to work with. It's a beautiful story, but for me it was more of a history lesson and a reminder of what the world used to be like.