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.
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.
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