Daniel James Brown’s book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is a combination of biography, social history, and sports achievement. Using journals, diaries, and the memories of Joe Rantz, Brown chronicles the story of nine young men from Washington and their part in one of the most exciting races in Olympic rowing history.
The author met and interviewed Joe Rantz just before his death. Joe’s life itself is remarkable but this is more than his story. It is, at Joe’s request, the story of “the boat”. The boat is his eight teammates, boys from the working class who knew hard work and poverty but not much about the elite sport of rowing; a coach seeking recognition and the ultimate prize in his sport; the perfect shell built by a master shell builder; and two nations, one struggling to emerge from the depression and the other positioning itself for war.
Before this book I knew very little about competitive rowing. I didn’t know that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rowing was as popular as college football and basketball is today. Nor did I appreciate how physically and mentally demanding the sport is and the toll it takes on the body.
Through the words of George Pocock, an English born rower and master shell builder, I was introduced to the artistry of mastering the perfect stroke and the teamwork of a perfect crew. Joe Rantz could take the physical punishment and mental demands of the sport. The hard part for him was being part of a team and depending on someone else to achieve his goal.
Joe’s story is one of resilience and heartbreak. His mother died when he was 4 years old and he went first to an aunt then to his brother and finally back to his father, Harry. However Harry’s new wife, Thula, hated the thought of Harry’s first wife. Joe was a reminder and at the age of ten was banished from their home. He cut wood for the schoolhouse in exchange for a place to sleep and worked at a cookhouse for meals.
He was reunited with the family briefly when they all moved to Sequim Washington. But by fifteen Joe was alone again when the family moved and left him behind. Knowing he could depend on no one but himself, Joe did whatever he could for food and money.
He continued with school despite his circumstances and met his future wife, Joyce. Wanting a better life for himself and Joyce, he enrolled at the University of Washington. Joe worked summers for tuition money but needed a job during the school year to survive. If he could make the rowing team he was assured a part-time job, something hard to find in the 1930s.
To make the rowing team Joe competed against hundreds of young men. But the physical demands and harsh conditions of rowing soon whittled that number down. The final freshman Husky crew representing the university included Joe. It was a powerful crew that went undefeated.
Al Ulbrickson, the coach of the varsity rowing teams, was a fierce competitor and determined to represent the United States at the 1936 Olympics. Over the next two years he moved crews and changed the varsity and junior varsity but no matter what he did, the same core group that were undefeated as freshman continued to win.
He finally settled on his crew: Joe, Don Hume, George Hunt, James McMillin, John White, Gordon Adam, Charles Day, Roger Morris, and coxswain Robert Moch. They swept through the national championship and the Olympic trials. They were on their way to Berlin.
Even though I knew the results for each race I felt the tension build. For the Olympic final I lived the excitement, anxiety, overwhelming noise and confusion, then the exhaustion of a race that demanded and was given every ounce of heart and strength these young men possessed.
For a sport that demanded so much and was a means to an end, Joe found that rowing gave much more than it took. It gave him something he lost when he was four years old – a place to belong.
I highly recommend this outstanding book that is available in both print and audio at Joplin Public Library.