In the summer of 1935, Joe said goodbye to Joyce and drove out east, looking for work. He found a job in the town of Grand Coulee, where workers were building a massive dam; he took on more dangerous work than most people accepted, so that he could earn more money. Joe’s duties included drilling holes in the sides of cliffs to make room for dynamite. During his work, he thought about the prospect of rowing in the Olympics, but he also felt insecure about having been demoted to JV.
It’s a mark of the times that Joe must continue working hard to support himself through college, even after he garners so much acclaim for his crew victories—at the time, sports scholarships were a rarity, at least at the University of Washington. On top of his financial obligations, Joe continues to contend with his own self-doubt.
Around the same time, Ulbrickson agreed to race his varsity team against teams from Cal, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, UCLA, and Syracuse. Ulbrickson wanted to disprove the often-repeated claim that Cal would be representing America in the 1936 Olympics. In the race, Cal and Washington led the field, but Cal ended up winning by less than half a second.
During the next few chapters, Washington’s status as a natural for the 1936 Olympics begins to slip, as Joe and his peers begin to show signs of weaknesses and insecurity on and off the water—here, for example, the boys in the boat lose to Cal.
That summer, Joe learned to use a jackhammer to drill into rock. The work was difficult, but Joe got along well with his coworkers. He also enjoyed the fresh air and the physical challenge of working a jackhammer. At night, he played the banjo and wrote letters to Joyce. Eventually, he discovered that two of his teammates were also working at Grand Coulee that summer: Johnny White, from the freshman team, and Chuck Day, from varsity. Johnny was a likeable man, and came from a poor family. His father’s business had crashed after 1929; afterwards, he’d encouraged his son to row competitively. Although Johnny had graduated high school two years early, he spent two years working before enrolling in college, both to make money and to build up his muscles. Chuck Day was a talented rower, though he and Joe hadn’t spoken much, since Chuck rowed varsity. Chuck’s family wasn’t nearly as poor as Joe’s or Johnny’s, but he loved the challenge of working on a dam—he was a “ferocious competitor.”
Over the summer, Joe began to realize that he and his teammates weren’t so different—they all hailed from working-class backgrounds and needed to work hard to pay their ways through college. Instead of feeling embarrassed and insecure about their financial situations, however, Joe and his buddies bonded with one another and had a great time working together over the summer. This was an important formative experience for Joe—previously, the book has given the impression that Joe was a lonely outsider at Washington. But over the summer, Joe came to understand that he and his teammates were on a more equal footing and, therefore, that he could trust them and cooperate with them in a race.
Over the course of the summer, Joe, Johnny, and Chuck became close. The work was crushingly hard, but they found cheap ways to have fun—there were bars that played jazz and country music, card houses, and restaurants. Joe, Johnny, and Chuck all occasionally broke their promise to Al Ulbrickson to remain sober, but Joe—unlike Johnny and Chuck—didn’t want to pay extra money to go dancing, especially since he was still with Joyce. In spite of the hard work that summer, Joe, Johnny, and Chuck found plenty of time to “act like the teenagers they actually were.”
That summer, Joe, Johnny, and Chuck worked hard, but they also found some time to have fun. In doing so, they cemented their friendship, and may have inadvertently made themselves better rowers: by developing a close friendship, they probably learned to work “in swing” more easily, a skill that helped them to Olympic gold in 1936.