The Boys in the Boat

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Growing up in the landlocked, desert climate of Utah, I had never heard of the sport of rowing until my older brother, Curt, went off to college at Harvard. Always a wonderfully talented athlete, he signed up for “crew” to stay in shape and give himself a physical outlet to balance the academic challenge he was beginning. That decision became a life-shaping experience for him, and a four-year adventure for the entire family. The culmination of that extraordinary experience was that his winning crew represented the United States in the 1968 Olympics.

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With that personal background, of course I was completely captured when I started reading The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. The simple description of this book is that it is the story of the University of Washington rowing crew that represented the United States in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But that doesn’t even begin to describe the experience of reading the book. It was an amazing immersion into everything that brought those nine young men to that incredible moment in time, in Hitler’s Germany, when they won the Olympic gold by less than a second.

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The book is a fascinating and complete “education” about the elegant sport of rowing, Seattle, life during the depression, the rise of Nazi Germany before the war, and the personal history of Joe Rantz, one of the “boys in the boat.” The research that went into this book was phenomenal, and the care in telling the story equally excellent. I became very attached to Joe, whose life story is compelling. And I loved the descriptions of each race, whether they won or lost, because it read as if I was right there with them. It was a very enjoyable read.

However, it was much more than entertainment. The Boys in the Boat is a story full of life’s lessons. The reader becomes “witness” to the life-transforming experiences these talented young men had as they slowly became a TEAM in every sense of the word. Trust, collaboration, and giving up Self for Team creates the art of rowing. And they worked incredibly hard at their art.

Eight hearts must beat as one in an eight oared shell or you don’t have a crew!
~ George Pocock

After reading this book, I have a new appreciation and admiration for my brother and his experience with the sport of rowing. In July, I had the opportunity to listen to him share with our family some of his memories of his extraordinary rowing coach, Harry Parker, who just recently passed away. Curt’s stories are even more amazing and poignant in light of all I learned from this book. (I have hundreds of questions for him now!)

The story doesn’t end with that heart-stopping win in Berlin. The “boys” became men through the rigors of their sport, and I think it’s important to say that they became good men and lived good lives.

Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.
~ George Pocock

Reading this book was an incredible experience for me. I find myself continuing to think about it and “process” it, and find connections to it in my life.  Those are the kinds of books I love best.  What an amazing story in the context of an extraordinary time.

Some interesting links:

Video of 1936 Olympic Rowing, a film by Leni Rienfenstahl. (Part of the story told in the book)
Video Interview with Harry Parker: “Why We Row”
Daniel James Brown’s website
Seattle Times interview with author, Daniel James Brown

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6 thoughts on “The Boys in the Boat

  1. Nan

    Oh, boy does this ever sound great! And the story of your brother is just wonderful. I’ve always thought it must be a great physical feeling to row like that. It always looks so smooth. I like the idea of team. Thanks so much for this. The book reminds me a little bit of the movie Chariots of Fire.

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  2. Robin Post author

    Thanks, Nan. I think you’d be interested in my brother’s response to this post, but his comments stayed on Facebook instead of showing up on my blog. I’ll copy them here because they add even more to the story in the book and his own story.

    Here’s my brother’s response:
    Thanks, Rob, for your kind and thoughtful comments.
    I, too, was captured by The Boys in the Boat. SO much resonated for me as I shared the amazing life story of Joe Rantz, from my own summer work experience with a jack hammer in a dreadful, dangerous setting (a smelter) to the Olympic races. The commonalities include photo finishes in the Olympic trials in Long Beach (June,1968) and in the European Championship in France (September, 1967).
    But more meaningful than specific race results were the bonds forged in the amazing process of becoming a world class crew. You know of our timely reunion in June to honor Harry Parker at the 148th rowing of the Harvard-Yale Regatta – just 2 weeks, it turned out, before his death. Our entire Olympic crew plus many other oarsmen & women gathered.
    Thanks for the link to Harry’s brief description of rowing. Show Time just broadcast a 60 Minutes Sports a documentary on Harry (which can also be found on YouTube). Tom Bowles, the coach of the University of Washington freshman heavyweight crew which included Joe Rantz, became the varsity crew coach at Harvard who hired a very young Harry Parker in 1961.
    The book is a wonderful, accurate account of what spending many hours in a boat did for me! I’d love to respond to ALL of your thousand questions! Love you, Curt

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  3. Les in NE

    This sounds like such a wonderful book! I’ve read a couple of glowing reviews, but yours has me convinced! I’ve always been fascinated with rowing and have watched the teams from UW row on Lake Union (while visiting my dad, who lived on “aboard” for 15 years). Now to decide whether to read or listen to this book. Thanks for all the extra information, Robin. I’ll come back and visit those links once I’ve read the book.

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  4. Robin Post author

    Thanks, Les. It took me most of August to read this book — not a fast read for me because there was so much to it. He really did his research!! My connections with this book were multi-layered. Besides my brother’s rowing experience, the Seattle/UW connection was a fascinating connection for me, too, having lived there for 24 years. Brown’s descriptions of Seattle in the 1930s were fun. With your connections to the area, I’m sure you’d enjoy that part, too. I would have enjoyed listening to the audiobook version, so let me know if you decide to listen to it. I haven’t even looked to see who narrates it. The author?

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  5. Nan

    I came back to say there is a documentary on Netflix streaming called The Boys of ’36. It was very good, but too short to tell everything in the book. I have the book but haven’t gotten to read it yet. I think you’d like the doc. And I just read what your brother wrote. It gave me chills about the coaches.

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    1. Robin Post author

      Oh Nan, thank you so much for coming back to this post. I will definitely look for the documentary! Thanks for letting me know about it.

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