The Boys in the Boat

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Joe Rantz Character Analysis

Although Daniel James Brown has described The Boys in the Boat as an “ensemble piece,” Joe Rantz is the closest thing in the book to a main character. Joe is emblematic of the 1936 American rowing team in general: he came from a poor family, struggled to support himself during the Great Depression, and exhibited extraordinary drive, determination, and ambition. Rantz lost his mother when he was still a child; afterwards, his father, Harry Rantz, married a woman named Thula LaFollette, who seems to have disliked Joe greatly. Harry and Thula abandoned Joe and forced him to support himself while he was still a minor; amazingly, Joe managed to pay his way through the University of Washington. It was here that Joe became a rower. However, in order to become a world-class athlete, Joe had to conquer his shyness and intense individualism—he had to learn how to work with his eight teammates in order to row as efficiently and powerfully as possible. Ultimately, The Boys in the Boat is a story about teamwork, and over the course of the book, Joe learns how to work with a team—both in the literal sense of cooperating with his rowing team and in the more metaphorical sense of opening up to other people, such as his girlfriend, Joyce Simdars.

Joe Rantz Quotes in The Boys in the Boat

The The Boys in the Boat quotes below are all either spoken by Joe Rantz or refer to Joe Rantz. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of The Boys in the Boat published in 2014.
Prologue Quotes

I shook Joe's hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that I’d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, "But not just about me. It has to be about the boat."

Related Characters: Joe Rantz (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Husky Clipper
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Prologue to the Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown meets Joe Rantz, the closest thing to a protagonist in the book. Joe Rantz won an Olympic gold medal at the 1936 Berlin games, and lived a long, fruitful life—even so, his life’s story remains relatively obscure (especially when compared with that of Jesse Owens, the most famous American athlete at the ‘36 games). Brown wants to write a book about Joe’s life, but he doesn’t know how to begin to tell Joe’s story. Joe’s advice is simple: tell a story “about the boat.”

Joe isn’t speaking literally, of course—he doesn’t want the story to just be about the physical boat, the Husky Clipper, that the team rowed in in Berlin. Rather, his point is that any story about Joe’s rowing career must do justice to the feeling of solidarity, cooperation, and trust that arose between Joe and his peers as they approached the Berlin games. A good crew team works as a single, cohesive unit: the rowers must be highly adept at responding to one another’s bodily cues and staying “in swing” throughout the duration of the race. Thus, it’s no coincidence that many great crew teams remain friends for years—Joe and his peers were no exception.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

The hurting was taking its toll, and that was just fine with Joe. Hurting was nothing new to him.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

During his freshman year, Joe Rantz tried out for the University of Washington crew team. He was told, again and again, that trying out for crew would be one of the most challenging things he ever did. While rowing every evening for three hours—as the freshman hopefuls were required to do—was taxing, Joe didn’t mind the physical pain as much as some of his classmates did. Joe grew up in an impoverished home, and he was accustomed to taking care of himself, going hungry, etc. In short, Joe braved more adversity in his first eighteen years than some people do in their entire lives. As a result, the physical challenges of rowing were nothing new to him. The passage is especially important because it suggests that Joe’s difficult childhood—for which he was mocked and teased again and again during his time in college—was actually an asset when it came to rowing, because it conditioned him to work hard and never give up.

Chapter 6 Quotes

It didn’t help that [Joe Rantz] continued to feel like everyone’s poor cousin. With the weather remaining cool, he still had to wear his ragged sweater to practice almost every day, and the boys still teased him continuously for it.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Joe Rantz continued to succeed as a rower, he faced considerable adversity on the University of Washington campus. His classmates, many of whom hailed from wealthy families in big cities, mocked Joe for his cheap, ragged clothing and somewhat unpolished manners. The teasing that Joe endured at college took a significant toll on his life overall. He began to question whether he belonged at college in the first place, and he found that he wasn’t able to focus on rowing—he was too distracted by his own insecurities. In short, in order to succeed as an Olympic rower, Joe didn’t only have to train extensively; he had to strengthen his psychological defenses against bullying and build self-confidence.

Chapter 9 Quotes

As Joe raised a hand to acknowledge the wave of applause rising to greet him, he found himself struggling desperately to keep back tears. He had never let himself dream of standing in a place like this, surrounded by people like these. It startled him but at the same time it also filled him with gratitude, and as he stood at the front of the room that day acknowledging the applause, he felt a sudden surge of something unfamiliar—a sense of pride that was deeper and more heartfelt than any he had ever felt before.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz
Page Number: 170-171
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of his sophomore year, Joe scored a major victory in rowing. He and his teammates did exceptionally well in the annual race against Cal, proving to Ulbrickson that they had the potential to row in the Olympics. Joe and his teammates were honored for their success with a visit to the Seattle mayor’s office. There, Joe was overjoyed: he couldn’t believe that he’d risen to the point where he was shaking hands with wealthy and famous people like this.

The passage is a good example of how Joe’s rowing prowess—not to mention his courage and dedication—helps him achieve great success in the world. Joe was born to a poor family that didn’t take good care of him, but due to his perseverance and talent, he achieved considerable success in life, making him an example of the idealized “American Dream.”

Chapter 11 Quotes

For the most part, though, they stayed in Grand Coulee, where they could toss a football around in the sagebrush, chuck rocks off the edges of the cliffs, bask shirtless on stone ledges in the warm morning sun, sit bleary-eyed in the smoke around a campfire at night telling ghost stories as coyotes yelped in the distance, and generally act like the teenagers they actually were—free and easy boys, cut loose in the wide expanse of the western desert.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz, Johnny White, Chuck Day
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

The summer after his sophomore year, Joe worked on the Grand Coulee dam, a major engineering project announced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Just as Roosevelt predicted, the building of the Coulee damn wouldn’t just provide power for the Washington community; it also united many people together in a common cause. That summer, Joe worked alongside two of his teammates from the Washington crew program. Together, they bonded, learned to respect one another, and—perhaps most importantly of all—had a good time. In this poignant passage, Brown describes how Joe and his friends fooled around and had a good time, like the teenagers they were—reminding readers that Joe, in spite of his youth, had never had much time to be a kid.

The passage is important to the book because it shows Joe beginning to bond with his teammates and, at the same time, becoming more of a team player. By learning to trust his friends, Joe learned to row more efficiently and contribute more to his boat’s success.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Joe and Joyce took the four children out for ice cream and then stopped by a grocery store and bought some basic provisions before dropping them off back at the house. By the next day, when Joe checked, Harry and Thula had returned. But Joe couldn't fathom what his father and Thula had been thinking. Apparently this had been going on all summer long.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz, Joyce Simdars, Harry Rantz, Thula LaFollette (Rantz)
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

As Joe worked his way through college, he faced considerable adversity from his own family. Joe had been taking care of himself for many years, but during his junior year, he began to realize that he had to take care of his half-siblings as well. Joe’s father, Harry Rantz, and his stepmother, Thula LaFollette, were horrible parents—sometimes, they’d leave their children alone for days at a time, without enough food to go around. Joe and his girlfriend, Joyce Simdars, then took care of Joe’s half-siblings whenever they could.

Although Joe was much younger than his father or stepmother, he was a far more responsible person, as this passage clearly shows: he knew how to take care of people in need, whereas his biological father always prioritized his own needs before those of other people. With so many family responsibilities to deal with, Joe’s rowing suffered: he couldn’t concentrate on winning, and still struggled to work well with his teammates.

Pocock paused and stepped back from the frame of the shell and put his hands on his hips, carefully studying the work he had so far done. He said for him the craft of building a boat was like religion. It wasn't enough to master the technical details of it. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz, George Yeoman Pocock
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

In the fall of 1935, George Yeoman Pocock took Joe Rantz under his wing. Pocock, one of the greatest boat builders of his time, was an important adviser to the University of Washington crew team, as well as its resident designer of shells (racing boats). Pocock was also an immensely thoughtful, introspective man, and he took an almost religious view of the sport of rowing. Pocock liked Joe—they both came from working-class backgrounds, and had used their natural talents to rise through society. They’d also had to deal with the same tragedy: the loss of a mother at an early age. Perhaps as a result of this, Pocock felt comfortable opening up to Joe about his philosophy of building a boat: he described the feeling of making a great boat as a kind of spiritual surrender.

The passage is important because it establishes a firm bond between Joe and Pocock. Furthermore, almost everything Pocock says about building shells could be said about the sport of rowing. Good rowers don’t succeed simply because of their individual strokes; they succeed because they learn how to work alongside their peers. In Pocock’s language, they “surrender” a part of themselves to the boat itself, and devote themselves to succeeding at all costs. Pocock had a profound impact on Joe’s success as a rower—and, given Pocock’s insightfulness and his bond of trust with Joe, it’s not hard to see why.

Chapter 19 Quotes

In the white-hot emotional furnace of those final meters at Grünau, Joe and the boys had finally forged the prize they had sought all season, the prize Joe had sought nearly all his life. Now he felt whole. He was ready to go home.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Joe Rantz and his teammates from the University of Washington won Olympic gold in a climactic race. As the passage suggests, they succeeded not simply because of their athletic prowess, but because they learned to work as a team. In part, the athletes worked so well together because they came from similar backgrounds—any of them were from impoverished West Coast families, and they were familiar with working hard to survive. In any event, the passage sums up the central theme of the book: the importance of teamwork. Joe sat in bed the night after winning his medal, thinking about everything he’d learned. He finally felt “whole,” in the sense that he had close friends who trusted and respected him. For someone like Joe, who’d grown up lonely and insecure, this realization was nothing short of an epiphany.

Epilogue Quotes

Roger Morris, the first of Joe’s friends on crew, was the last man standing. Roger died on July 22, 2009. At his memorial service, Judy rose and recalled how in their last few years Joe and Roger would often get together—in person or on the phone—and do nothing at all, hardly speaking, just sitting quietly, needing only to be in each other's company.

Related Characters: Joe Rantz, Roger Morris, Judy Rantz
Page Number: 367
Explanation and Analysis:

Many of the rowers on the 1936 American Olympic rowing team remained close friends for their entire lives. Several of them worked together at Boeing for decades, and Joe Rantz and Roger Morris remained close for years, until Joe’s death in the 2000s. Although Roger and Joe weren’t especially talkative, their relationship ran deeper than mere conversation—as Judy suggested to Brown, they had an intimate, almost spiritual friendship, to the point where they could communicate even in perfect silence.

The passage is a poignant reminder of the importance of trust and teamwork both in rowing and in life. Joe and Roger rowed to Olympic glory because they, and their other teammates, were great friends. Indeed their bond of friendship was so strong that it continued for decades to come.

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Joe Rantz Character Timeline in The Boys in the Boat

The timeline below shows where the character Joe Rantz appears in The Boys in the Boat. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue
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...writing The Boys in the Boat shortly after learning about his neighbor, a man named Joe Rantz. When Brown met Joe for the first time, Joe was in his mid-seventies, but... (full context)
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One afternoon, Brown came to visit Joe Rantz, and Joe’s daughter Judy answered the door. Joe wasn’t doing well; his heart was... (full context)
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...had stolen it and placed it in the attic. Brown realized that, like his medal, Joe’s story had been hidden for far too long. Inspired, Brown told Joe that he wanted... (full context)
Chapter 1
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...in October, it became sunny. At the University of Washington, two students, Roger Morris and Joe Rantz, walked across the quad. Morris and Rantz were both freshmen, but they were tall... (full context)
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Joe Rantz was less confident than Roger Morris, despite his good looks and athleticism. He hailed... (full context)
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For the rest of the afternoon, Rantz, Morris, and the other freshman hopefuls filled out medical forms. Watching Rantz and Morris was... (full context)
Chapter 2
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Joe Rantz was the second son of Harry Rantz and Nellie Maxwell. Harry was an intelligent... (full context)
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Growing up, Joe developed a passion for gardening. His parents kept a small garden in order to feed... (full context)
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Joe’s adolescence was sad and lonely—he had few friends, and he rarely saw his father. But... (full context)
Chapter 3
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In the fall of 1933, Joe Rantz tried out for the crew team. Every afternoon he weighed in, got his assignment... (full context)
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...came home with blisters and other injuries. Every evening, fewer freshmen showed up to practice. Joe Rantz noted with satisfaction that the rich, polished freshmen didn’t last long, because they couldn’t... (full context)
Chapter 4
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In November 1924, Thula Rantz was in labor, and Harry, her husband, set off to fetch a doctor. He did,... (full context)
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Thula disliked Sequim, and hated living on a farm. She also resented Joe and disliked his friends. One morning, she accidentally poured hot bacon grease on Harry Junior,... (full context)
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Joe was intimidated by the prospect of living alone, but he told himself that he wouldn’t... (full context)
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Around the same time, Joe’s old girlfriend, Joyce Simdars, returned from Montana, where she’d been living. Joyce had been raised... (full context)
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In 1931, Joe got a letter from his brother, Fred, inviting him to live with him in Seattle... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...Bolles decided to move some of the best rowers into small shell barges—he chose both Joe Rantz and Roger Morris for this privilege. The shell barges were broader than competitive shells,... (full context)
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Roger Morris and Joe Rantz were quickly becoming good friends. Neither one of them was particularly talkative, but they... (full context)
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...could now announce who had made “first and second boat.” Bolles announced that Roger and Joe had made first boat. Joe forced himself not to show emotion in front of his... (full context)
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...it eroded houses and cracked roadways. In the midst of the rain, however, Joyce and Joe went home to Sequim. Joyce’s mother showed Joe a recent headline from the local newspaper,... (full context)
Chapter 6
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In January 1934, Joe and Joyce went back to Seattle, where it was still raining. Crew practice began on... (full context)
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...one rower’s attentions are divided, the entire boat suffers as a result. Bolles wondered if Joe Rantz was the weakest link on the team—he’d rowed in the third seat (usually reserved... (full context)
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...the teams from Cal and Washington faced off in Lake Washington. Joyce was watching as Joe prepared to row. Lately, she’d been working as a maid in a judge’s house—a job... (full context)
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...than four boatlengths, beating the freshman record by twenty seconds. The Seattle crowd cheered. Later, Joe embraced Joyce and danced with her under the Seattle sky. (full context)
Chapter 7
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Two hours after Joe Rantz and his teammates defeated the Cal freshman team, it was time for the varsity... (full context)
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To get to Poughkeepsie, Joe traveled in a luxurious Pullman railway car—courtesy of the university. He played the guitar for... (full context)
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...teams’ wild, rough, brawny qualities, while emphasizing their East Coast counterparts’ intelligence, sophistication, and refinement. Joe and his teammates fit snugly into the traditional east-west narrative: “old money versus no money... (full context)
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...Poughkeepsie was brimming with crew fans, eagerly awaiting the competition. The freshman teams were first. Joe and his teammates were most intimidated by the Syracuse team, which had won three of... (full context)
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...worsening topsoil erosion in the Midwest. Farmers abandoned their property and drove westward. Furthermore, when Joe got back to Seattle, he found that there was now a major union strike underway.... (full context)
Chapter 8
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One night, Joe was fishing near the Dungeness River, when a game warden hit him over the head... (full context)
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Joe spent the summer of 1934 living in Sequim, trying to raise enough money to support... (full context)
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When Joe and his classmates returned for training in the fall, they were excited about their prospects.... (full context)
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In the fall, Joe and his sophomore teammates rowed fifth boat, the lowest rung on the ladder. They were... (full context)
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In the fall of 1934, Joe tried to reunite with Harry, Thula, and his half siblings. When he and Joyce went... (full context)
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That fall, Joe threw himself into rowing. He idolized George Pocock, a man who, despite having little in... (full context)
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As 1934 came to an end, Joe headed back to Seattle to spend the holidays with Joyce and her family. Around this... (full context)
Chapter 9
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...also seemed interested in sending a varsity rower named Broussais C. Beck Junior to Berlin. Joe noticed that Beck was a wealthy, spoiled student. (full context)
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...forward, “as if by magic.” Moch’s tactic always made the sophomore rowers lose their cool—especially Joe. Ulbrickson began to doubt his sophomores’ abilities—he’d expected them to emerge as the new varsity... (full context)
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...they weren’t trying hard enough: they were sloppy and lazy. The talk was devastating for Joe, as well as Roger Morris and Shorty Hunt, Joe’s two closest friends. Shorty Hunt went... (full context)
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In April, the weather became sunny again, and Joe and Joyce rented a canoe. On the water, they talked about getting married one day... (full context)
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...allows the oarsmen to row very efficiently for long periods of time. Ulbrickson knew that Joe and his teammates had found their swing the day they won at Poughkeepsie; he was... (full context)
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Finally, it was time for the varsity teams to race. Joe and the other rowers knew they had a lot to prove. The race kicked off... (full context)
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...awards for bringing honor to their state. This was one of the happiest moments of Joe’s life—he’d never dreamed he’d be so honored for his achievements. (full context)
Chapter 10
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...or international titles in crew would be a feather in Seattle’s cap. In many ways, Joe and his peers were putting Seattle on the map. (full context)
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...wouldn’t necessarily be competing there—they would have to earn their varsity spots. This announcement made Joe and the other sophomores train even harder. Ulbrickson raced the varsity and JV teams against... (full context)
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...faster time than the freshman team last year had posted. Next was the JV race. Joe and his peers were feeling insecure—they’d been humiliated by their own teammates time and time... (full context)
Chapter 11
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In the summer of 1935, Joe said goodbye to Joyce and drove out east, looking for work. He found a job... (full context)
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That summer, Joe learned to use a jackhammer to drill into rock. The work was difficult, but Joe... (full context)
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Over the course of the summer, Joe, Johnny, and Chuck became close. The work was crushingly hard, but they found cheap ways... (full context)
Chapter 12
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Joe returned to Seattle in September of 1935; he’d earned enough money to support himself through... (full context)
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Back in school, Joe continued rowing. Al Ulbrickson had not been fired, contrary to what many had guessed, but... (full context)
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Joe spent his first weeks back in campus studying engineering and spending as much time as... (full context)
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George Pocock continued to spend time with Joe; he asked Joe about his family, and learned that he and Joe had a lot... (full context)
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...the freshmen champions, now sophomores, as well as the varsity and JV teams. Ulbrickson moved Joe between several boats, none of them first boat. Joe found that he missed rowing alongside... (full context)
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On October 25, Joe learned that Thula was dead of septicemia (blood poisoning). He was shocked—he’d never really liked... (full context)
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...minute—he wanted to determine the rowers’ power. Leading up to the final days of training, Joe got the news that his old friend and neighbor, Charlie McDonald, had died in a... (full context)
Chapter 13
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...was determined to send a Washington team to Berlin. Ulbrickson went on to announce that Joe, along with Shorty and Roger, had been bumped up to varsity. Joe was surprised—he’d been... (full context)
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In February, Ulbrickson dropped Joe from boat one to boat two, and then down to boat three. Meanwhile, George Pocock... (full context)
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...and Don Hume. Hume was already a highly talented rower, with a powerful, smooth pull. Joe, on the other hand, had been relegated to the third boat. On March 21, however,... (full context)
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In the coming weeks, Joe adjusted to his new teammates; he befriended Gordy Adam and Don Hume, and continued to... (full context)
Chapter 14
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...train left the station, and thousands of people showed up to cheer the team. As Joe climbed on the train, he saw Joyce with her parents, cheering for him. During the... (full context)
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...news broke that Max Schmeling, the world heavyweight champion from 1930 to 1932, had defeated Joe Louis, a young black boxer, and one of the first black athletes to become acclaimed... (full context)
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...Ulbrickson congratulated his teams, but urged them to stay focused on qualifying for the Olympics. Joe and the varsity team could feel how close they were to going to Berlin. (full context)
Chapter 15
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...campus and posh environment; they had light workouts twice a day, but nothing more. However, Joe and his peers were well-aware of the importance of the time trials—if they failed here,... (full context)
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...Square in New York City. Several people recognized the team from photographs in the newspapers. Joe and his peers took a trip to the top of the recently completed Empire State... (full context)
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...flags at the thousands of fans who’d come to wish the Olympic team good luck. Joe looked down from the deck, trying to remember everything so that he’d be able to... (full context)
Chapter 16
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...Europe, Roger Morris and Don Hume became very seasick and lost a lot of weight. Joe didn’t get too seasick, but he resented that the ships cook wouldn’t serve him more... (full context)
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...in the police cadet training academy, a beautiful, perfectly clean, modern building. Later that evening, Joe took a walk and passed by a Jewish synagogue, a Prussian mansion, and, finally, the... (full context)
Chapter 18
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Immediately following the events of the last chapter, Joe noticed that the other boats were moving. He shouted to Bobby, who shouted, “Row!”, and... (full context)
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...rely on Hume to set the pace for very much longer, Bobby called out for Joe to set the rhythm. But just as Bobby shouted to Joe, Hume’s head snapped up,... (full context)
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Back in Seattle, in Harry’s house, Joe’s half-siblings cheered with delight at the news coming from the radio. Joyce, who was sitting... (full context)
Chapter 19
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...every one of the boys fought back tears. Later that night, the team, except for Joe, went out drinking. Joe spent the night lying awake in his bed, staring at his... (full context)
Epilogue
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Joe returned to Seattle in September, and began living in a room of the house Harry... (full context)
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...team that year was the finest they’d ever seen. Afterwards, Roger Morris, Shorty Hunt, and Joe Rantz officially ended their collegiate rowing careers. (full context)
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Joe Rantz graduated in 1939 with a degree in engineering, and Joyce graduated at the same... (full context)
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...Hume. In 2002, Joyce died; three years later, Bobby Moch and Jim McMillin died, too. Joe and Roger were the last surviving members of the Olympic crew team. Joe died peacefully... (full context)