Rowing is one of the most challenging sports, Brown says, using almost every muscle in the body. The physiological effort of rowing a two thousand meter race is double that of playing a basketball game— furthermore, rowing such a race takes only six minutes. Pound for pound, an Olympic rower takes in as much oxygen as a horse. Rowers often experience serious bone and muscle injuries; thus, one of a rower’s most important skills is the ability to endure pain.
Brown emphasizes that rowing is a tremendously challenging sport, not only because of its physical difficulties but because it requires the rowers to maintain great concentration, and to endure a lot of physical discomfort.
In the fall of 1933, Joe Rantz tried out for the crew team. Every afternoon he weighed in, got his assignment for which boat he’d be rowing with, and listen to Bolles lecture the freshmen about the difficulty of rowing. Bolles stressed that rowing was far more physically and intellectually demanding than football—and that most freshmen would probably give up rowing by Christmas.
At the time, rowing was treated as the most prestigious American sport, even more acclaimed than football, baseball, or basketball. As a result, rowing was seen as a test of one’s strength, intelligence, and character—as Bolles’s speech makes clear, making the crew team was a sign of one’s overall worth.
During some of Bolles’ lectures, a British man named George Yeoman Pocock would be in attendance. Pocock came from a long line of boatbuilders. The English had essentially founded the sport of rowing (as it was then known) in the 18th century, so that by the late 1700s, rowing had become a popular sport for aristocrats. Pocock’s grandfather and father built racing shells (i.e., competitive crew boats), and when George was fifteen, he became his father’s apprentice. George was a talented rower, not just a boatbuilder. He developed a new stroke style and used it to win a prestigious rowing competition, the Sportsman Handicap. At twenty, George and his brother Dick immigrated to Canada, where George worked at a shipyard. The job was dangerous, and George lost two fingers there.
George Pocock was another working-class professional who used his immense talents to achieve glory. As the humble apprentice for his father’s boatbuilding business, Pocock improved upon his family’s long tradition of building excellent shells. Pocock was not afraid to take big risks—for example, traveling to the United States as a young man. Although Pocock ended his life as one of the most respected figures in his field, he knew first-hand what it meant to work hard for little acclaim and to make big sacrifices (for example, losing two fingers!).
In 1912, George and Dick won a valuable commission from the Vancouver Rowing Club to build two sculls (boats). Later, they met Hiram Conibear, the crew coach for the University of Washington—who, in spite of his post, didn’t know anything about rowing. Conibear lacked rowing talent, but he made up for his lack of talent with dedication. He studied anatomy to find the best rowing techniques, and he commissioned a dozen shells from the Pocock siblings. George showed Conibear how to coach his students; together, they developed the “Conibear stroke,” a much shorter, more efficient stroke than was commonly used. As a result, the University of Washington became a nationally recognized crew school.
Pocock almost single-handedly built the University of Washington crew program into one of the best in the country, if not the world. He used his experience both as a rower and as a builder of aerodynamic shells to reshape the Washington crew team into a force to be reckoned with.
After World War One, Dick and George received hundreds of orders for shells. George Pocock became increasingly devoted to rowing; in particular, he recognized the importance of building a strong “bond of trust and affection” between the rowers in order to ensure that they worked well together.
Because rowing is such an intimate, cooperative sport, it becomes very important for the eight oarsmen to develop a bond of trust and affection—only then can they work together perfectly in the boat.
The freshman team’s training proceeded through the fall, with the freshman hopefuls rowing on the water while Al Ulbrickson and Tom Bolles supervised them. Freshmen quickly learned the basics of crew—in particular, the importance of not thrusting the blades of the oars too deep into the water. Roger Morris was one of the most talented freshman rowers, partly because he’d rowed before. Morris hailed from near the Olympic Mountains, and as a younger child, he rowed across the Manzanita Bay.
Some of the freshmen rowers came from backgrounds that afforded them some rowing experience, but most had barely been out on the water at all. Morris, with his experience rowing on the Manzanita Bay, was the exception for the rowing tryouts, not the rule.
The freshmen, Morris included, learned how to execute smooth, powerful strokes, timing their movements perfectly. They rowed for three hours every afternoon, and often came home with blisters and other injuries. Every evening, fewer freshmen showed up to practice. Joe Rantz noted with satisfaction that the rich, polished freshmen didn’t last long, because they couldn’t deal with the pain of rowing. For Joe, however, “hurting was nothing new.”
Brown suggests that Joe succeeded as a rower not in spite of his humble origins but because of them; he’d had so much experience coping with the psychological devastation of abandonment that he knew how to focus on the task at hand and concentrate on succeeding—a skill that helped him enormously on the water.