After the 1936 regatta, it began to sink in that West Coast crew programs were more than a match for their East Coast counterparts. Washington’s victory at the regatta established it as the best crew program in the country—even Ebright said so. In July 1, the team packed for Princeton, where it would be rowing in the Olympic time trials. For the first few days, the Washington team enjoyed Princeton’s elegant campus and posh environment; they had light workouts twice a day, but nothing more. However, Joe and his peers were well-aware of the importance of the time trials—if they failed here, they’d never make it to Berlin.
Washington’s national title sent a clear message to the East Coast crew programs of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. At Princeton, the Washington team felt out-of-place, but stayed focused on qualifying for the Olympics, recognizing that they’d effectively been training for this race for years.
In their preliminary heat, the varsity Washington team faced Princeton and the New York Athletic Club, neither much of a contender. Washington won the race easily; however Cal had a much more difficult preliminary heat against Navy and Penn, winning by less than a boatlength. Cal ended up posting a faster time than Washington, causing the Washington team to doubt itself once again.
Even after the Washington team rowed to great success in its preliminary heat, it continued to doubt itself. Ulbrickson had set his varsity athletes’ sights so high (Olympic gold!) that nothing short of a world-class performance would reassure them.
In the final Olympic trial, Cal faced Pennsylvania, Washington, and the New York Athletic Club. Washington started poorly, with Gordy and Jim McMillin losing hold of their oars. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania took the lead, followed by the Athletic Club and Cal. Washington kept a low stroke rate, but managed to pass the Athletic Club before the halfway mark. Holding a steady stroke count of thirty-four, Washington rowed with remarkable power, passing California, then Pennsylvania, and winning handily. Washington was going to Berlin. Ulbrickson was overjoyed: he’d managed to assemble the perfect team and coach them to victory with the perfect strategy.
As in many of their other successful races, the Washington varsity rowers triumphed because they were able to trick their competitors into underestimating them. By starting from behind, the team saved enough energy for a powerful, unbeatable finish; furthermore, by maintaining a low stroke rate, the team was able to row very efficiently and get in swing almost without trying. In short, Ulbrickson’s clever planning, combined with the athletes’ strength and technique, proved unbeatable.
In order to fund an excursion to the Olympics, Ulbrickson quickly learned, the team was going to have to pay its own way: the American Olympic Committee didn’t have funds for a team. Now, Washington needed to come up with five thousand dollars, or else Penn would go in Washington’s place. Furious, Ulbrickson decided not to tell his team about the funding crisis for fear of alarming them. However, he contacted Paul Coughlin from the Washington alumni association, who in turn spoke to the mayor of Seattle. Soon after, donations poured in, including a check for five thousand dollars from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Washington had the funds to go to Berlin after all.
In the 21st century it would be almost inconceivable for an American team to lack the funding necessary to travel to the Olympics—but during the Great Depression, such a situation wasn’t uncommon. Wisely, Ulbrickson didn’t tell his athletes about the financial crisis, so that they could stay focused on rowing, not logistics. The fact that so many well-wishers and fans came together to help the Washington team testifies to the popularity of rowing in the 1930s, and the city of Seattle’s sense of civic pride. In a sense, funding the crew team was a good investment for the Chamber of Commerce; it spent five thousand dollars in order to put Seattle on the map and bring glory to Washington.
The varsity team trained on Long Island, at the New York Athletic Club. The club was a lavish place, complete with a billiards room and an oyster bar, and the team enjoyed training there in the weeks following its victory at Poughkeepsie. The team also enjoyed traveling out to Coney Island and Times Square in New York City. Several people recognized the team from photographs in the newspapers. Joe and his peers took a trip to the top of the recently completed Empire State Building. There, looking down at the city, he began to realize that he was now a representative of the American way of life—liberty, “mutual respect, humility, fair play.”
The Washington crew team’s success led it to some of the most exclusive places in the world, and into contact with some of the most powerful people in America. Joe and his peers had never been to New York City before, but while visiting there, they came to realize that they weren’t just athletes—they were representatives of their country, standing for American values and the American way of life. As Brown has endeavored to show, Joe and his teammates really were representative of the American way of life: they’d survived the Depression through their own ingenuity, perseverance, and optimism.
During the team’s training period on Long Island, Bobby Moch received a letter from his father; Bobby had written his father about visiting relatives in Switzerland. Now, Bobby’s father revealed to Bobby that his relatives—and, thus, Bobby himself—were Jewish. When Bobby learned the news, he burst into tears. Jews were a persecuted minority in America in the 1930s, but Bobby had been raised to believe that people should be judged by their abilities, not their race. Now, he realized that his father hadn’t wanted to live according to his own rule, and had instead treated his race like “a secret to be ashamed of.”
In the 1930s, American anti-Semitism was socially accepted to a degree that would be shocking by most contemporary standards. Certainly, there were many who believed that race shouldn’t make a difference; however even some of these Americans (including Bobby’s parents, it would seem) caved in to the pressures of societal anti-Semitism and hesitated to celebrate their Jewish heritage for fear of facing discrimination.
On July 9, the team took a trip out to Huckleberry Island, off the coast of Long Island. There, the team seemed utterly at ease. Four days later, they packed and prepared to sail for Berlin on the SS Manhattan, accompanied by Al Ulbrickson and George Pocock. Before leaving, the team attended an Olympic reception at the Lincoln Hotel, where they met other American Olympians, including the runner Jesse Owens. The next day, the team picked up its visas and Olympic credentials, and attended Loew’s State Theater. The next morning, they finally boarded the Manhattan and set sail. The team stood on the deck, waving flags at the thousands of fans who’d come to wish the Olympic team good luck. Joe looked down from the deck, trying to remember everything so that he’d be able to tell Joyce about it when he returned.
The American Olympic Committee didn’t have the funds to send the Washington team to the Olympics, but it nonetheless organized a lavish party for the Olympic team at the Lincoln Hotel. Jesse Owens is perhaps the most famous athlete to compete in the 1936 Olympic games—more than any other athlete of the era, his success dealt a blow to Hitler’s bogus theories of Aryan racial superiority (Owens was African American, and faced significant racial prejudice both in Germany and in his own country). During the voyage to Germany, the passage suggests, Joe spent a lot of time thinking about Joyce, still one of his closest friends in the world.