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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
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Publisher: Viking Books
Also available in audiobook
The central idea of ‘’The Boys in the Boat’’ by Daniel James Brown is that teamwork is always at the heart of great accomplishments. Brown conveys this idea by telling an inspirational story about Joe Rantz and the team of eight young men from the University of Washington and their quest for gold at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. So, get ready to hear the story about their success!
On an unusually warm October day in 1933, Joe Rantz and Roger Morris headed to the place where Montlake Cut entered Union Bay on the west side of Lake Washington. They had the same objective - to sign up to join the University of Washington’s freshman rowing team. As they entered the shell house of the school’s rowing team, Rantz became nervous. He glanced at hundreds of boys at the spot who were mostly sons of lawyers and businessmen. Only a few of them were farm boys, fishermen, and loggers, like Rantz. For him, joining the rowing team did not just mean getting a scholarship, but also a part-time job somewhere on campus, which would help him get through college. If his plan didn’t work, he would have to return to a small town on the Olympic Peninsula to live in a cold, empty house, surviving on construction jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Two men were looking at the boys assembled in the shell house. One of them was the freshman coach Tom Bolles, a former Washington oarsman. The other was Al Ulbrickson, head coach of the University of Washington rowing program. Although quiet in demeanor, Ulbrickson commanded the boys effectively, with only a few words and without raising his voice at any time. Ulbrickson’s dream was to take his team to the Olympics in Berlin and bring the gold medal home to Seattle. That sunny afternoon by the Montlake Cut, he sensed that there were nine boys with the potential to become the best oarsman in the world, among those who came to register. It was up to him to find out which of them had the extreme physical and mental stamina, intellectual capacity to master the details of technique, and potential for raw power. Most importantly: which of them could put their egos aside and row not just for themselves, but for other boys in the boat.
Joe Rantz was born in 1914 as the second son of Harry and Nellie Rantz. One of his first childhood memories was of his mother coughing blood into a handkerchief. The next memory also involves his mother - lying still in a coffin when he was only 4 years old. After his wife died, Harry Rantz, haunted by horrible pictures of her last moments, went to the wilds of Canada to cope with the loss alone. Joe’s older brother Fred went to college, leaving his younger brother with their aunt Alma.
In 1921, Joe moved into a new house in Spokane to live with his father and stepmother Thula. Two years later, the smell of smoke and the sound of flames woke Joe one night. He quickly got up and took his stepbrothers outside. A few moments after, Harry and Thula ran out of the house. When he realized everyone was safe, Joe’s father went back inside to save the only thing he had left from his previous marriage - Nellie’s piano. It was also the only thing that was saved from the house, which eventually burned down to the ground.
After the accident, the family moved to the mining camp where Harry had been working as a master mechanic for the previous year. However, the atmosphere of the new place did not suit Thula, and Joe was the one who suffered the most because of her frustration. She never grew fond of him as he reminded her of her husband’s previous marriage to Nellie. One day, the tensions boiled over, and she demanded that Harry remove Joe from their house. Harry obeyed and arranged with the schoolteacher that Joe would chop wood for the school’s fireplace in return for a place to sleep in the building. Thula also refused to cook for him, so he had to find the food for himself.
In 1925, Harry bought an auto repair shop, and the whole family moved to a small apartment above it in Sequim. Joe enrolled in a school there, made new friends, among whom was a pretty blond girl named Joyce Simdars who would later become his wife. However, his happiness did not last long. One day when Joe returned home from school, he found the house empty. His father, Thula, and the other kids had moved out and gone to someplace where Thula would be happier - and that certainly meant someplace without Joe.
When it comes to competitive rowing, the first thing all novice oarsmen must learn is that ‘’pain is part and parcel of the deal.’’ As Brown says: ‘’Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body.’’ This quickly became evident to Joe Rantz and other boys trying out for Washington’s University freshman team. Soon after they started training, their hands were bleeding and covered in blisters, and every part of their bodies ached. Rantz noticed there were fewer boys in training every day. By November, more than half of the original crew had dropped out. He was especially pleased to see that ‘’boys with impeccably creased trousers and freshly polished oxfords’’ were among them. Towards the end of the year, Joe and Roger found out that they both were chosen for the first freshman boat.
In April of the following year, the Ulbrickson team competed against the University of California at Berkeley, on Lake Washington in Seattle. They won, crossing the finish line 4.5 lengths ahead of California. That same year in June, the team traveled to Poughkeepsie to compete against the best crews in the East for the national championship. It was the first time they had rowed on a river, and in fact, the first time they had rowed anywhere other than Lake Washington. Despite being in unfamiliar territory, the boys won, finishing 5 lengths ahead of Syracuse.
In January 1935, Ulbrickson revealed his plan to the rest of the team. He wanted them to start training hard, every day, despite the bad weather, to work themselves into top physical condition. “At one time or another,” he said in the end, “Washington crews have won the highest honors in America. They have not, however, participated in the Olympic Games. That’s our objective.” Rantz secretly hoped he would be the one chosen to go to Berlin.
On July 4, 1936, several thousand people gathered along the shores of Carnegie Lake to cheer for the six crews competing for the right to go to Berlin: Washington, California, Pennsylvania, Navy, Princeton, and the New York Athletic Club. They were divided into two groups - the top two boats in each of them would advance to the final the next day. The Ulbrickson boys were nervous, as they did not get a good night's rest because of the damp heat. They were first racing against the Princeton and New York crews, and Brown says they were surprised at how easily they won. Their rivals in the final race, scheduled for the next day at 5 p.m., were California, Pennsylvania, and the New York crew.
On July 5, a few minutes after 5 p.m., all four competing teams were waiting for the starting gun to flash. Washington got off to a poor start. Penn was leading, with the New York Athletic Club behind them, and the crew from California settling into third place. At one point, the Washington boys picked up the tempo, switching from 34 to 40 strokes per minute, and passed the exhausted boys from the other three teams. As Brown describes, the team ‘’looked like a single thing, gracefully and powerfully coiling and uncoiling itself, propelling itself forward over the surface of the water.’’ At the finish, they were a full length ahead of the Penn crew that came in second. California won third place, and New York finished last.
In the moment of victory, people all over Washington State stood and cheered. Harry Rantz was cheering for his son by the radio, too. Brown writes, ‘’What had been a dream was a reality. Their boys were going to the Olympics.’’
When the press asked Ubrickson what he attributed the success of his team to, he said: “Every man in the boat had absolute confidence in every one of his mates ... Why they won cannot be attributed to individuals, not even to stroke Don Hume. Heartfelt cooperation all spring was responsible for the victory.”
Unfortunately, the Olympic trials were not the only obstacle the boys had to overcome on their journey to Berlin. It turned out that the American Olympic Committee did not have enough funds to send them, and therefore asked the rowing team to finance their journey to the Olympics themselves. All the boys were from working-class families, and, unfortunately, they could not contribute to the trip in any way. Ulbrickson decided they would ask Seattleites for help, and, thanks to their donations, they collected the sum they needed by the end of the second day. When the departure day came, nine boys - Don Hume, Joe Rantz, Shorty Hunt, Stub McMillin, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Chuck Day, Roger Morris, and Bobby Moch - boarded the ship to Europe called the SS Manhattan, along with 325 other members of the U.S. Olympic team.
On the first of August, the Games of the XI Olympiad officially started. When Hitler entered the stadium on the opening night, the boys could see the crowd rose to their feet, saluting “Sieg Heil!‘’ Hilter stepped to the microphone and announced the games were open.
At the beginning of the Olympics, the American team did poorly because their boat was damaged. Furthermore, Don Hume got sick and was unable to perform as usual. However, as the competition progressed, they managed to win the first preliminary races. On the day of the final race, they again got off to a bad start. When other boats surged forward, they were still waiting at the starting line - they did not see the flag drop. When they realized what had happened, they began rowing in a full-sprint mode, beyond exhaustion and what their bodies could endure.
Eventually, they came close to the German and Italian boats and passed the finish line with them. For a few moments, nobody knew who won. Finally, the loudspeakers announced the official results. The bow of the American boat had touched the line six-tenths of a second before the Italian boat, and exactly one second before the German boat. Ulbrickson's dream finally came true - his team had won the Olympic gold medal.
In ‘’The Boys in the Boat,’’ Brown tells a universal story about the human quest for perfection. For this reason, his book will appeal to readers regardless of their interest in rowing, or sports in general. Apart from this, it has a gripping plot, memorable characters, and, as the reviewer from Associated Press says, ‘’beautifully crafted history.”
How about watching the documentary called ‘’The Boys of ‘36,’’ that PBS made about the American rowing team and its quest for the gold medal at the Olympics?
Daniel James Brown is an editor and writer of narrative nonfiction books about significant historical events. Before becoming a writer and editor, Brown taught writing at San Jose St... (Read more)
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