“Boys in the Boat” Depicts Early 20th Century Life
Thanks to the Ulbrickson Family Collection, we can see the University of Washington Crew in action back in March 1936.The line-up was nearly set when the boys went out that morning for a row that took them from Seattlle’s Portage Bay to Montlake Cut.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, written by Daniel James Brown, is three stories masterfully blended to comprise one book – the build up to WWII in Germany as well as the United States; Joe Rantz, a collegiate rower who competed in the 1936 Olympics with his crew in the Husky Clipper from the University of Washington and the story of Rantz’s youth; and finally the history of George Pocock, whom I call the godfather of rowing, who immigrated from England and shaped Joe Rantz’s life, crews at the University of Washington, as well as the way racing shells were constructed nationwide.
Al Ulbrickson, the University of Washington Crew Coach, and Tom Bolles, the assistant coach, trained nine young men for the ride of their lives. Their passion for the sport rubbed off on the coxswain and eight rowers who worked together for four years, breaking records and winning at Poughkeepsie, NY to board a converted cruise ship to Europe to compete in Germany. Joe Rantz made it as one of these eight rowers by the skin of his teeth. Together, Ulbrickson and Bolles successes carved a path for rowing on the West coast to be equally recognizable as rowing on the East coast.
Rowing during the early part of the 20th Century was considered to be a sport of sports, with crowds in attendance rivaling those that pack current-day stadiums on Super Bowl Sunday. Brown describes how trains adjusted their schedules to parallel the race route, ferries did the same on the water, and fans lined the shores to watch each crew compete for their shot at glory. For example, 200,000 fans flocked to large regattas, such as Poughkeepsie, to see who would win and compete in the Olympics. Unlike today, where individual rowers from across the nation compete for a spot in one boat, the winner of this regatta with their set line up would move on to represent the nation every four years.
Brown is masterful in how he interweaves the stories of Joe Rantz and George Pocock, whom Rantz came to admire during his four years at the University of Washington. Rantz sat with Pocock for hours in his shop above the boathouse, listening to Pocock’s words of wisdom. Pocock taught Rantz how to be part of the boat rather than an individual, calming his stroke and reigning in his strength. It was because of Pocock’s influence that Rantz graduated from the third boat to the first boat. Rantz learned about survival and working hard due to his stints of having to fend for himself each time his family left him behind.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics were important in the build up to WWII, a way for Adolf Hitler to show the world his belief that the Arian race was the superior race. Brown describes what it took for Hitler to build a state of the art Olympic stadium for the 1936 games. And later, how an American ship outdid the German, and Italian, crew on the water to prove Hitler and his belief wrong.
Brown artfully depicts the state of the world during the first part of the 20th Century, showing the reader the depth of how desperate situations were due to the Great Depression. Hunger was something Rantz and his family knew intimately. For example, his step-mother stretched food as best as she could, but it was Rantz who understood how to stretch a dollar, especially when he was left behind the second time in high school.
The Boys in the Boat is superior story worth the read, to not only learn the history of WWII and a unique perspective of coming of age during the Great Depression, it is the story of winning through survival when the Husky Clipper’s crew wins gold at the Berlin Olympics. Joe Rantz overcomes all odds to enter college and a earn a spot on the University of Washington’s crew. Brown’s introduction to George Pocock and his lasting morsels of knowledge that applied to both on and off the water, taught Rantz, and myself, how to truly live. I’ll leave you with a quote from George Pocock:
“It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”
Watch this amazing film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic rowing, including race footage from the men’s 8 event that the UW Husky Clipper took by storm. It was written, directed, and produced by German film-maker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl, who was commissioned to document the now infamous Berlin Olympics. The resulting documentary – Olympia – was released in April 1938. That year, while touring the U.S. to promote the film, news of the progrom against the Jews reached U.S. shores and Riefenstahl was immediately asked to leave the country.
This is the first in a series of book reviews by Kate Craig – a writer, editor, and photographer who coxes for DC Strokes Rowing Club. She enjoys being active and finding ways to make a difference.