In spite of its promising crew program, Seattle was still considered “a backwater in many regards, and not least in the world of sports.” The baseball and football teams rarely if ever played on the national stage, meaning that national 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.
As a consequence of the popularity of rowing, Joe and his teammates at the University of Washington had an opportunity to bring tremendous glory not only to themselves and their college but to their city and their state.
By April of 1935, the Dust Bowl had wreaked havoc on the Midwest, meaning that migrant workers were coming out to California and Seattle. Also in April, news of Hitler’s brutality reached American newspapers. And yet the vast majority of Americans ignored the dark news from Europe.
The passage contrasts the cautious optimism of Joe and his teammates with the overall mood of despair in America at the time. People looked across the country and saw only ruin—and many of them were too frightened to look across the Atlantic to Hitler’s nightmarish police state.
Ulbrickson prepared for Poughkeepsie. He announced that the sophomores 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 one another; often, the JV team won.
The JV and varsity teams continued to compete fiercely—forcing both teams to try as hard as they could. Ulbrickson seems to have fostered a rivalry between his athletes in order to ensure that both boats would be at the top of their game for Poughkeepsie.
One of the most challenging aspects of rowing is that the faster the crew rows, the harder it is to maneuver the boat. A high stroke rate usually results in sloppier technique. Partly for this reason, great oarsmen need to be “immune to frustration.” They must also understand how to work together, tailoring their own strokes to fit in with the group pace. The best teams are often the most diverse—on the other hand, if the oarsmen are all light and introverted or big and aggressive, then the team will be at a serious disadvantage.
One could say that rowing—as with so many other sports—is a metaphor for life. The best boat, much like the best group of people, is diverse, so that different athletes’ strengths and weaknesses complement each other. Perhaps the one underlying quality that all good oarsmen must have in common, however, is concentration: they need to know how to block out fought that isn’t about winning the race.
After many weeks of training, Ulbrickson announced that the JV team would return to its varsity status, and the sophomores would row JV. His announcement angered many sports reporters, who’d been supporting the sophomores for months. The train ride out to Poughkeepsie was uneasy—there was still a hot rivalry between varsity and JV. In Poughkeepsie, the other coaches couldn’t believe that Ulbrickson had demoted the sophomores to JV. On the other hand, Ulbrickson, feeling paranoid, wondered if Ebright had forced his team to lose to Washington early that year to lull Ulbrickson into a false sense of security. Ulbrickson rowed the JV and varsity teams against each other, and the sophomores lost by a humiliating eight boatlengths.
Ulbrickson was still such a respected figure at the University of Washington that the athletes instinctively trusted that he would make the “right” decision about his boats. However, the passage makes it clear that Ulbrickson himself wasn’t sure what to do—he wondered if Ebright was conning him, and he wondered if his sophomores really had what it took to win at Poughkeepsie, not to mention the Olympics.
On the morning of the regatta, some thirty thousand people showed up—less than had been expected, probably due to the heavy rain. The first race of the day was the freshman race, and the Washington team defeated Cal by four lengths, for an even 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 again. They started off in fourth place, but gradually surged into the lead. By halfway through the race, the sophomores were rowing beautifully—they went on to win the race easily. Ulbrickson realized that he could win all three races at Poughkeepsie—something no coach had ever done.
Joe and his peers succeeded at Poughkeepsie because they had something to prove. While they were certainly weakened by insecurity due to Ulbrickson’s volatility and their competitions with the varsity team, the sophomores learned from their mistakes, and managed to win seemingly without any trouble.
The final race of the day, the varsity race, began at six pm. As the race kicked off, Washington gained a narrow lead. Gradually, however, Cal and Cornell were catching up. By the halfway mark, Washington was still ahead, but not by much. In the final mile, Cal pulled ahead, and Washington fell behind by almost a boatlength. Then, Cornell pulled ahead of Washington, pushing Washington into third place. In the end, Cal won the race in record time. Ulbrickson was humiliated: he’d failed to win a national title, and the newspapers would continue to lambast him for switching the sophomores into JV (even though, Ulbrickson insisted, the sophomores wouldn’t have won in the varsity division). In the next few weeks, rumors circulated that Ulbrickson was going to be fired, and Tom Bolles was going to get Ulbrickson’s job.
Ulbrickson embarrassed himself, the passage claims, by switching the sophomores into JV (even though, one might think, winning two out of three national titles is still pretty impressive). The passage reminds readers that a coach’s job isn’t simply to win titles; ultimately, his job is to preserve his own job and keep himself from getting fired and replaced with someone else. The chapter ends on a note of suspense—after the regatta, it seemed possible that Ulbrickson would be kicked off the team.