On April 20, Hitler turned forty-seven. In the past month, he’d violated the Treaty of Versailles by occupying the Rhineland, in response to which English diplomats agreed to allow Germany to keep its new landholdings. Encouraged by his military success, Hitler looked forward to the Olympics as an opportunity to show off Germany’s sophistication and peacefulness, disguising the brutality of his regime. Hitler and Goebbels commissioned Riefenstahl to direct Olympia, a propaganda film about the 1936 games, designed to glamorize fascist Germany.
In 1936, Hitler took decisive steps to prove to the world that Germany was a military force to be reckoned with. However, instead of opposing Germany militarily, European diplomats, particularly in the United Kingdom, believed that they should appease Hitler and allow Germany to keep its new landholdings. In part, the passage suggests, the international community appeased Hitler because Hitler was a master of public relations, using the Olympics as a sign of Germany’s benevolence.
In Washington, Ulbrickson encouraged his victorious varsity athletes to square all personal affairs so they could focus on rowing. To his fury, however, Ulbrickson discovered that four of his varsity athletes had incompletes in school, meaning that they could be declared ineligible for rowing. He ordered them to bring up their grades. To his delight, Don Hume aced his final exam, and the other three athletes did well enough to qualify for rowing. Meanwhile, the varsity team bonded and continued to row spectacularly. At the same time, Ky Ebright prepared his team for Poughkeepsie, confident that he’d be able to defend Cal’s national title and send a team to the Olympics.
Ulbrickson continued to adopt a “holistic” approach to rowing: he believed that the rowers needed to excel in all aspects of their lives. Ulbrickson had practical reasons for using this approach to coaching—his rowers literally couldn't row for Washington unless they got good enough grades. But Ulbrickson also pushed his athletes to do more than the bare minimum academically, all the while encouraging his athletes to row at the peak of their abilities.
On June 10, Washington’s varsity team headed out to Poughkeepsie by train; Ulbrickson had instructed his athletes to pack as if they were going to Berlin. A band played as the train left the station, and thousands of people showed up to cheer the team. As Joe climbed on the train, he saw Joyce with her parents, cheering for him. During the train ride, Tom Bolles, George Pocock, and Al Ulbrickson held strategy sessions to ensure that Washington would be able to push ahead in the final mile of the race. Ulbrickson suggested a novel strategy: start with a low stroke rate, build through the second mile, and then row the second half of the race with a high stroke rate.
The large crowd at the train station reiterates that rowing was one of the most popular sports—and one of the key community events—of 1930s America. Ulbrickson and his fellow coaches had a strategic challenge ahead of them: they had to re-train their athletes to save their energy for the final mile of the race, ensuring that they wouldn’t lose steam before they reached the finish line.
On June 14, the team arrived in Poughkeepsie. The varsity athletes had plenty of reason to be confident, but there were rumors that Cal had turned out a record time for the four-mile race. Ulbrickson tried to keep his team from reading about Cal in the papers, and encouraged them to focus on getting sleep and staying in shape. Late at night, however, the varsity boys had been perfecting their strokes, to the point where they could row in swing without even trying—they knew they were in great shape for the regatta.
Ulbrickson wanted to prevent his athletes from reading too much about the Cal team’s successes—and, in the era before smartphones, he largely succeeded. At the same time, the varsity team continued to stay in swing, reflecting the athletes’ close friendship and expert teamwork in the boat.
Shortly before the regatta, news broke that Max Schmeling, the world heavyweight champion from 1930 to 1932, had defeated Joe Louis, a young black boxer, and one of the first black athletes to become acclaimed among white Americans. Hitler was overjoyed with Schmeling’s victory, since it seemed to confirmed his racist theories of Aryan superiority. Two years later, however, Louis would defeat Schmeling in less than three minutes, and go on to reign as world heavyweight champion for more than a decade.
In Germany, Joe Louis’s defeat against Max Schmeling was greeted as a sign of “Aryan” superiority to other races. This reiterates one of the key points of the book: sporting events are deeply political. The athletes are often competing on behalf of their cities, countries, races, and religions, meaning that an athletic victory can also be a victory for a specific culture or community.
The evening before the regatta, the varsity Washington crew rowed up to Hyde Park on the Hudson, where President Franklin Roosevelt was said to live. After managing to find the president’s estate, the athletes announced themselves as the varsity Washington crew team; a servant let them inside and introduced them to Franklin Roosevelt Jr., the president’s son. Franklin Jr. talked about how he’d rowed at Harvard and the rumors that Tom Bolles would be transferring there if he could pull off a win at Poughkeepsie that year. He also showed the athletes around his huge estate, even letting them sit in the armchair where the president delivered his famous fireside chats.
While the athletes didn’t meet the president here, they met the president’s son. Their encounter demonstrates the strong link between rowing and elitism in the early 20th century. Rowing was a sign of social status, especially at an elite East Coast university such as Harvard. But rowing was also a way for cultural outsiders (such as the West Coast, working-class Washington team) to enter the ranks of the elite—the athletes literally used rowing to enter the president’s mansion.
On the morning of the regatta, Bolles was contemplating moving to Harvard, as Franklin Junior had hinted. In the end, his freshman team performed brilliantly, beating Cal by a boatlength; shortly afterwards, Bolles left Washington for Harvard. Next was the JV race, and again, Washington easily triumphed, beating the nearest competition by three boatlengths. As the audience prepared for the varsity race, Ulbrickson knew he had a chance to sweep the regatta and win all three races.
The passage builds up the suspense: would Ulbrickson redeem himself and sweep all three titles at Poughkeepsie? Meanwhile, the fact that Bolles was secretly contemplating moving to Harvard reiterates that, although West Coast crew teams were “up and coming” in the 1930s, the most popular, respected programs in the country were still based on the East Coast at elite universities.
The varsity race began promptly at eight pm, and Washington quickly fell behind—just as Ulbrickson had planned. Bobby Moch kept his crew at an even twenty-eight strokes per minute, not minding that his team was in seventh place. At the mile point, Washington passed Cal, though Cal quickly moved back into the lead. By two miles, Washington was in fifth place. This worried Ulbrickson, since falling so far behind the competition had never been part of his strategy. With a mile to go, however, Bobby began yelling for the crew to row at a higher rate—they were three boatlengths behind. Then, as if by magic, Washington settled into swing: the rowers seemed to be rowing with perfect efficiency. The boat moved into third, then second place. While Cal rowed erratically, Washington seemed perfectly controlled, and in the end, it won by less than a boatlength.
The Washington team won the regatta because it fell into swing in the middle of the race. After several bumpy years, the athletes learned how to work alongside one another—not as a boatful of individuals, but as one team. Furthermore, the varsity boat won the regatta because of the ingenuity of Ulbrickson’s strategy. By starting slow, the Washington rowers tricked their competitors into underestimating their power—a shrewd strategy, especially since the East Coast rowers were already likely to underestimate their relatively obscure West Coast rivals.
Ulbrickson had won a great victory at Poughkeepsie, but he would have to win one more time to stay ahead of his rival, Ebright. Ulbrickson congratulated his teams, but urged them to stay focused on qualifying for the Olympics. Joe and the varsity team could feel how close they were to going to Berlin.
Ulbrickson knew that celebrating after the regatta would have been premature; he wanted his athletes to succeed on the East Coast once more, at the Olympic qualifying trials.