The Boys in the Boat

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Perhaps the most important theme of The Boys in the Boat is teamwork, both in the sense of working as part of a literal team and the metaphorical sense of trusting and cooperating with other people. In the book, Daniel James Brown examines the 1936 American Olympic rowing team, made up mostly of juniors from the University of Washington. In order to succeed at the Berlin Olympics, the Americans had to learn how to work together to achieve a common goal—a gold medal. As the book explains, rowing is one of the most collaborative sports: on an eight-oar rowing team, all eight rowers must move in perfect or near-perfect synchronization. Even a tiny mistake can throw off the delicate rhythm of the team. Because oarsmen need to move together so precisely, they must develop a close psychological bond of friendship and respect to succeed. The Boys in the Boat isn’t just the story of how the 1936 Olympic rowers perfected their technique and power; it’s about how the nine teammates (eight oarsmen plus a coxswain) learned to work together, and became lifelong friends in the process.

In particular, Brown studies the importance of teamwork by documenting the life of one of the nine Olympic team members: Joe Rantz. Joe’s life probably captures the importance of trust, cooperation, and respect more succinctly than that of any of his teammates. Joe’s early life was full of tragedy, which pushed him to become more isolated and individualistic. His mother died when he was a child; shortly afterwards, his father, Harry Rantz, fled to Canada, leaving Joe to live with his aunt. A few years later, Harry married another woman, Thula LaFollette, and began taking care of his son once again. But then he and Thula decided to move away and leave Joe, not yet an adult, to fend for himself. Joe rose to the task of providing for himself with impressive initiative and drive—the very qualities that later made him an excellent rower. But he also trained himself not to rely on any other human beings—after so many years of betrayal and disappointment, he concluded that he couldn’t depend on anyone other than himself.

When he attended the University of Washington and joined the crew team, though, Joe’s independence proved to be a liability. He was a talented athlete, but because he was hesitant to befriend his teammates or form a bond of trust with them, he struggled to grow from a good rower into a great one. In his junior year, however, Joe began to let some of his defenses come down—and, not coincidentally, he became a much better rower. He spent a summer working alongside two of his teammates and received expert advice from George Pocock, the Washington team’s adviser and a renowned boatmaker. Pocock encouraged Joe to trust his teammates—he had no choice but to depend on them in the heat of the race. Pocock characterized a good crew team’s trust and teamwork as a kind of religious ecstasy. Over the course of the book, then, Joe begins to open up with his teammates, eventually becoming so close with them that they were able to get into swing—i.e., row in perfect unison—almost without trying. By the end of 1936, the University of Washington team was the best in the world: not just because of the individual rowers’ strength or form, but because all nine teammates had learned to work together.

It’s often said that the way people play sports represents the way they live their lives. In the case of the 1936 rowing team, the cliché is true: having developed such a close bond, the nine teammates exceled at working with other people for the rest of their lives. Many of the teammates remained friends for decades to come; indeed, Joe Rantz was still close with his teammate Roger Morris in the 2000s. Furthermore, many of the teammates worked at Boeing together. In spite of his lonely, isolated early years, Joe Rantz had a long, happy life: he had a great job, a loving wife, and wonderful friends. As the book suggests, Joe finally achieved the “religious experience” to which George Pocock alluded. Furthermore, once he learned how to embrace the special feeling of trust and teamwork as a rower, Joe continued to embrace that feeling in every area of his life.

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Teamwork and Trust Quotes in The Boys in the Boat

Below you will find the important quotes in The Boys in the Boat related to the theme of Teamwork and Trust.
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 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

Back in February [Al Ulbrickson] had commented […] that "there are more good individual men on this year's squad than on any I have coached." The fundamental problem lay in the fact that he had felt compelled to throw that word "individual" into the sentence. There were too many days when they rowed not as crews but as boatfuls of individuals. The more he scolded them for personal technical issues, even as he preached teamsmanship, the more the boys seemed to sink into their own separate and sometimes defiant little worlds.

Related Characters: Al Ulbrickson (speaker)
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

By this point in the book, Al Ulbrickson, the dedicated coach of the University of Washington crew team, has realized his students’ principle weakness: they’re excellent rowers, but they don’t understand how to work as a team. The best rowing teams, Ulbrickson argued, were cohesive units, made up of rowers who knew how to exactly adjust their strokes to one another’s pacing. Put another way, a team of decent rowers who work well together will often defeat a team of highly talented rowers who can’t get into “swing.”

The passage is important because it sets the direction for the middle third of the book: Ulbrickson attempting to teach his students how to work together. Throughout 1934 and 1935, he experimented with different combinations of athletes, hoping that one of these combinations would click. Ulbrickson’s goal was to help his rowers get into “swing”—in other words, find a natural rhythm that allowed them to row most efficiently, in almost perfect synchronicity.

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 14 Quotes

"That was a tough year. I wasn't liked at all," he later said. "I demanded they do better, so I made a lot of enemies." Moch drove those boys like Simon Legree with a whip. He had a deep baritone voice that was surprising in a man so small, and he used it to good effect, bellowing out commands with absolute authority. But he was also canny enough to know when to let up on the crew, when to flatter them, when to implore them, when to joke around with them. Slowly he won his new crewmates over.

Related Characters: Bobby Moch (speaker)
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Brown describes Bobby Moch, the superb coxswain for the 1936 American Olympic rowing team. Moch was a small, unimposing figure, but he was also a fast talker and quick thinking—important qualities for any good coxswain. He quickly impressed his teammates, even though they’d been fiercely loyal to his predecessor. Moch knew how to be tough—Brown compares him to Simon Legree, the villainous slave-owner from Uncle Tom’s Cabin—yet he was also fair. As a result, he gained authority over his teammates. During a race, Moch was a master of switching up the team’s strategy to confuse his competitors. He could be cautious and tactical in this thinking—as a result, he played just as much of a role in his team’s victory as any of the oarsmen.

As they flew down the last few hundred yards, their eight taut bodies rocked back and forth like pendulums, in perfect synchronicity. Their white blades flashed above the water like the wings of seabirds flying in formation. With every perfectly executed stroke, the expanse between them and the now exhausted Cal boys widened. In airplanes circling overhead, press photographers struggled to keep both boats in the frame of a single shot.

Related Symbols: Swing
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

As the University of Washington team drew closer and closer to its Olympic trials, it struggled to get in swing—in other words, to row with perfect synchronicity. However, on the day of its race against Cal, the team got in swing almost without trying. Henceforth, the Washington crew rowed beautifully: it was as if the oarsmen were reading each other’s minds, rowing with perfect timing and efficiency.

The passage is one of the book’s most eloquent portrayals of the kind of religious experience that George Pocock described in an earlier chapter. A great rower learns how to work alongside his teammates, to the point where he feels a profound, almost spiritual connection with them. In 1936, in the race against Cal, the University of Washington finally grasped such a spiritual connection, and as a result, went on to row to glory in the Berlin Olympics.

Chapter 15 Quotes

They were now representatives of something much larger than themselves—a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together—trust in one another, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another—those were also part of what America meant to all of them.

Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

As the University of Washington rowing team approached the date of its Olympic competition, the athletes began to realize the gravity of their situation. They’d competed in plenty of important races before, but they’d never thought of themselves as representatives of an entire country. In Germany, especially considering the delicate international political situation at the time, the American team members would be representatives of their country’s athletic programs, but also of their country’s values. In particular, Brown argues, the boys in the boat felt that their sense of unity and brotherhood—the very quality that made them such good rowers—was a distinctly American feeling. While the reality is that all great rowing teams, American or otherwise, feel the sense of brotherhood and unity that Brown alludes to in this passage, the Washington crew team may have felt that, as Americans, they had a particularly strong bond. Considering that they’d been through the worst of the Great Depression, and had persevered thanks to their optimism and hard work, they may well have been right.

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.