On January 9, 1936, Al Ulbrickson assembled his team and notified everyone that they were about to embark on the most “grueling crew season” in Washington history. It was an Olympic year, and Ulbrickson 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 rowing third boat all year. Nevertheless, he proceeded with his training, focusing on technique and power. Joe and his varsity teammates didn’t work well together, however; their form was poor.
This first section establishes the main challenge of Part Four of the book: Joe and his varsity teammates must learn how to work together and row to glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As the 1936 season began, however, Joe and his varsity peers didn’t know how to work together—they were individually talented, but they couldn’t really get in “swing.”
Ulbrickson relied on George Pocock to improve the rowers’ form and technique. In general, he was pleased: with Pocock’s help, the rowers were getting better. Ulbrickson was confident that Bobby Moch would be coxswain on the varsity team; he was small, smart, and charismatic—the perfect coxswain combination. A good coxswain is, in a sense, the captain of the boat: he must know the oarsmen well enough to understand their capabilities over the course of a long race, and he must size up the other teams to decide how to row. Bobby, who’d grown up in southwestern Washington, was a lifelong sports lover, and in spite of his small stature, he’d always been an enthusiastic athlete. Ulbrickson admired Bobby’s tenacity and intelligence—at first, Bobby wasn’t a popular coxswain, but gradually he won over his teammates.
Bobby was a great coxswain in large part because he was the most traditionally “smart” person on the team (later he’d attended Harvard Law and become a great lawyer). As coxswain, Bobby excelled at sizing up his competition and determining the optimal strategy for victory. And like many of his teammates, Bobby had to climb uphill to succeed on the Washington rowing team; he had to convince his classmates to like him enough to respect his authority. Furthermore, like Joe and many other rowers at Washington, Bobby hailed from a small town in Washington, isolated from Seattle, the nearest big city.
In February, Ulbrickson dropped Joe from boat one to boat two, and then down to boat three. Meanwhile, George Pocock began to get a sense for Joe’s rowing style: Joe was talented but sloppy, and he didn’t understand how to work with his teammates. Privately, Pocock tried to encourage Joe not to miss his chance at the Olympics. He said, “when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined.” One weekend, Joe drove Joyce to visit Harry at Harry’s new house. There, Joyce immediately felt sympathetic for Harry’s other children, who now had to grow up without their mother. Joyce got along with Harry, and she instinctively “played mother” with the children. Privately, however, she hated Harry for what he’d done to Joe. Joe entertained Harry’s children (his half-siblings) with banjo music, making them smile and sing.
As Pocock observed Joe more and more closely, he began to realize what Joe was missing—the ability to trust in his teammates. Pocock recognized Joe’s potential, however, and—it’s strongly implied— played a decisive role in making sure that Ulbrickson kept Joe on the varsity team. The passage parallels Joe’s adjustment to the new crew lineup with his gradual adjustment to his new family situation. Instead of allowing his resentment for his father to consume him, he managed to take the high ground and get along with Harry’s children (if not Harry himself). Here, as in the rest of the book, Joe improved as a rower by squaring away his personal life.
On March 19, Al Ulbrickson was ready to announce his best bet for an Olympic boat: Roger Morris, Chuck Day, Gordy Adam (a sophomore from the nearby Nooksack River), Johnny White, Jim McMillin, Shorty Hunt, and two more sophomores, Merton Hatch 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, Joe was moved up to Olympic boat, in the seventh seat, bumping out Merton Hatch. This, Joe sensed, was his chance to prove himself to be Olympic material.
Notably, Ulbrickson’s final lineup incorporated sophomores, juniors, and seniors, testifying to Brown’s previous claim that the best crew teams are often relatively diverse. Brown doesn’t explain why Joe was bumped up to first boat, but he strongly implies that Pocock intervened, perhaps recognizing Joe’s potential for getting in swing and appreciating the mystical side of rowing.
In the coming weeks, Joe adjusted to his new teammates; he befriended Gordy Adam and Don Hume, and continued to get along well with Roger Morris, Chuck Day, Jim McMillin, and Johnny White. He began to feel the feeling Pocock had talked about—the feeling of unity with his fellow oarsmen. On March 23, Joe’s boat beat the other boats by seven boatlengths. Afterwards, Ulbrickson knew he’d made the right decision: he had an Olympic-caliber boat on his hands. He officially made Joe and his peers the varsity team—from now on, they’d be rowing in the Husky Clipper, a beautiful, sleek shell, even by Pocock’s high standards. Perhaps the boys in the boat succeeded because they came from similar backgrounds—almost all were from working-class homes, or had been humbled by the Great Depression in some way. They were strong, but also humble, and knew the importance of working together.
The teammates quickly learned how to work together, confirming Ulbrickson and Pocock’s talents for coaching and sizing up rowers. Brown suggests that the boys in the boat got along partly because they had similar backgrounds; indeed, by showing how Joe bonded with Roger, Jim, and Johnny, Brown has already reinforced this theory. Joe and his friends weren’t afraid of doing hard work or putting up with pain for the greater good of victory—indeed, they’d been doing so in one way or another for most of their lives. This is the first time the Husky Clipper is introduced—a single object that comes to symbolize the team’s entire victorious story.
Ulbrickson had a few important races on his horizon: the Pacific Coast Regatta in California, the Poughkeepsie regatta, and, most importantly, the Olympic time trials in Princeton, New Jersey. Meanwhile, Ebright was even more confident than Ulbrickson; his own varsity team had posted a record three-mile time. Ulbrickson tried to ensure a Washington victory against Cal by making his varsity athletes eat protein and calcium-heavy food—including a disgusting pink calcium solution.
Ulbrickson excelled as a coach because he understood that rowers had to maintain a highly regimented lifestyle: they had to eat well, sleep lots, and keep their minds sharp.
The Cal varsity team arrived in Seattle on April 14 for the annual regatta. As usual, Ulbrickson tried to confuse Cal by making pessimistic statements about his team’s weaknesses. On April 18 the weather was beautiful, and a huge throng of crew fans turned out to watch the competition—the largest crowd ever to witness a crew race in the Northwest. The first race was the freshman race. Cal gained an early lead, but the Washington freshmen won by a considerable margin, posting a freshman record. The JV race was an easy victory for Washington. The final race of the day was the varsity race. Both Cal and Washington began the race by rowing at a high stroke rate. Bobby Moch focused on maintaining a consistent stroke rate, rather than rowing with maximum power, as the Cal team tried to do. By the two-mile mark, Washington had gained a small lead; even after Cal tried to pull ahead by a higher stroke rate, Moch kept the same steady pace. With half a mile to go, Moch called for Don Hume to pick up the stroke race slightly, and Washington rowed in perfect swing, winning the race by three boatlengths, and setting a new record for the course. Ulbrickson had a lot to be proud of: he’d won all three titles, redeeming himself in the eyes of Seattle’s elite, and his varsity team had defeated the defending national champions.
Ulbrickson’s teams easily won the JV and freshman competitions, reinforcing Ulbrickson’s status as one of the country’s best rowing coaches. But the JV and freshman competitions only built up to the main event—the varsity race. Here, the varsity team won by getting into perfect swing, demonstrating that Ulbrickson’ instincts had been right. By assembling a group of highly talented rowers who, coincidentally or not, hailed from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and had learned how to work together, Ulbrickson created one of the best rowing teams in history—one that could get in swing almost without trying. The Washington team’s decisive win against Cal, the school that had previously produced Olympic gold medalists in rowing, signaled that 1936 would be Washington’s year at the Berlin Olympic games.