On October 9, 1933, the Seattle skies were gray. Downtown, men sold fruit for a few cents. On Yesler Way, men stood in long lines, waiting for the soup kitchens to open. This was year four of the Great Depression, and a quarter of all working Americans were unemployed. Industrial production had fallen by half, and even the Americans with steady jobs looked to the future with “unrelenting uncertainty.” There were some signs of progress—the stock market was climbing again, and there was a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While Roosevelt had inspired many people with his bold rhetoric, others considered him a radical. In the 1933, there was also a new leader in Germany, Adolf Hitler. Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, was vocal about his desire to rearm his country, and his party had a reputation for thuggish brutality.
The book opens in the depths of the Great Depression. At the time, there was an overwhelming mood of despair—millions of Americans didn’t know what the future held for their communities or their country. However, sports were a way for communities to continue to celebrate themselves and reclaim a sense of optimism. The passage also introduces Adolf Hitler to the story, as Brown adds another narrative to contrast that of the “boys in the boat.” Hitler’s attempts to score a propaganda victory by hosting the 1936 Berlin Olympics underlies the American crew team’s impressive victory there.
On that day 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 and powerfully built. They took engineering classes together, but that afternoon, they were headed to a building near the Montlake Cut, the nearby canal. Inside the building, they registered to join the University of Washington freshman crew team.
The passage situates Morris and Rantz in the somber, uncertain atmosphere of the 1930s. For Morris and Rantz, rowing was more than just a fun activity; it was a beacon of hope at a time when the country as a whole didn’t have much to look forward to.
Joe Rantz was less confident than Roger Morris, despite his good looks and athleticism. He hailed from a small town in the Olympic Peninsula, and he didn’t feel that he fit in at college, where many of the students came from wealthy, big-city families. At the time, the University of Washington didn’t offer sports scholarships. However, Rantz’s best chance of getting a part-time job on campus—his only means of paying for college—was to join the crew team. But there were only nine seats on the freshman team, making his chances slim.
Many of the boys who rowed for America in 1936 hailed from working-class backgrounds. So Joe Rantz’s life story arguably exemplifies the working-class roots of America’s Olympic crew team. Joe’s experiences with poverty and his outsider status at the University of Washington may have inspired him to succeed as a rower; he had to get on the team to pay his way through college.
For the rest of the afternoon, Rantz, Morris, and the other freshman hopefuls filled out medical forms. Watching Rantz and Morris was the freshman coach, Tom Bolles. Bolles knew that most of the freshmen trying out for the team that day had never rowed before—they were city boys or farm boys who’d spent barely any time in water. Bolles’ duty was to teach his freshmen the delicate art of rowing. Al Ulbrickson, the head of the Washington rowing program, was also in the building that afternoon. Ulbrickson came from a family of modest means, and he’d rowed on scholarship during his time as a student at the University of Washington. In 1926, he became the freshman crew coach, and later the head coach. Ulbrickson was famously reluctant to talk to the press, but he was highly respected at the University of Washington. He had a reputation for being strict, and didn’t allow students to smoke, curse, or drink.
Many of the coaches who figure prominently in this book came from families of modest means, suggesting that they, no less than their students, were attuned to the harsh economic realities of the Great Depression. Ulbrickson’s controversial coaching style reflected some of the nuances in the art of rowing. Rowing requires intense physical exertion, but it also requires intelligence and immense self-control. Therefore, Ulbrickson stressed that his students must demonstrate their intelligence and self-control both in and out of the boat.
Another important person in the room that afternoon was Royal Brougham, the sports editor for the Post-Intelligencer. Brougham asked Ulbrickson some questions about the crew program that year, but Ulbrickson, in typical form, offered only brief answers. At the time, college crew was as popular as college football would be at the end of the 20th century; furthermore, a good crew team was a good way for colleges to gain national recognition. However, most of the best American crew programs were located on the East Coast. It was Brougham’s goal to use journalism to bring national attention to Washington’s West Coast crew program, and in the process, bring attention to the city of Seattle itself.
During the 1930s, there was an intense rivalry between sporting teams from the East and West Coasts, to an even greater degree than exists in the 21st century. Crew—which, at the time, was a hugely popular sport—was more than just an athletic competition; it was a way for different regions of the country to celebrate themselves on a national stage. In a sense, rowers were ambassadors for their communities—so by rowing well against athletes from other areas, they were competing on behalf of their entire communities, not just their teams or their colleges.
That same afternoon, thousands of miles away, a young German architect named Werner March sat in his office in Berlin. March had traveled to the Berlin countryside with Adolf Hitler to survey the old Deutsches Stadion, built for the 1916 Olympic Games. Germany was renovating the old stadium in preparation for the 1936 Olympic games, which would take place in Berlin. Hitler had originally been against hosting the games, since he thought of the Olympics as part of an international Jewish conspiracy and feared that the games would bring Jews and other “vagabond races” to Germany. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, convinced Hitler to change his mind. Goebbels was a shrewd man, and he recognized that the Olympics would give Hitler an opportunity to portray his country as civilized and peaceful. Hitler agreed with Goebbels—and now, March only had a few more hours to draft his plans for a new, enlarged Olympic stadium.
The “A plot” (i.e., main storyline) of the book is about the crew program at the University of Washington, but the “B plot” (i.e., secondary storyline) is about the Nazi Third Reich in Germany and its attempts to glorify itself via the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Goebbels, even more than Hitler, recognized the propagandistic potential of the Olympics. Today, it’s often observed that the Olympics are a political tool, by means of which the host country can portray itself in the most positive terms. In 1936, Hitler’s Third Reich was “innovative,” though, in using the Olympics for its own political ends, conning hundreds of thousands of visitors into thinking of Germany as a peaceful, trustworthy country.
Back in Seattle, Al Ulbrickson thought about the disastrous season Washington had had in 1932. Again and again, teams from California had defeated Washington’s best rowers. However, in 1933, Ulbrickson had assembled a great crew team that defeated Yale and many other elite East Coast schools. Therefore, Ulbrickson had a lot of reasons to be optimistic for 1934. He wanted to earn an Olympic gold medal for Washington—something no Washington coach had ever done. Ulbrickson was already thinking ahead to the 1936 games—he’d have to contend with the best rowers from Yale, Harvard, Cal, Oxford, and Cambridge, as well as teams from Italy and Germany.
In part, the University of Washington team succeeded at the Olympic games because it had excellent local competition on the West Coast—above all, Ky Ebright’s Cal team. Although Ebright is remembered as one of the finest crew coaches in history, his 1936 team paled in comparison to the Washington team from that year. The East Coast-West Coast rivalry wasn’t the only important rivalry in 1930s crew; within the realm of the West Coast, California and Washington had their own fierce competition, too.