In January 1934, Joe and Joyce went back to Seattle, where it was still raining. Crew practice began on January 8, and Joe gradually became accustomed to the team’s “workout schedule.” The team would train for a single race: the Pacific Coast Regatta. Then, if the team did well, it would race against Eastern schools in the national freshman championship. Bolles was an excellent coach; he’d never coached a team that lost a race to California in the Pacific Coast Regatta. The team rowed six days a week, through pouring rain. Meanwhile, Al Ulbrickson worked his upperclassmen hard. However, he quickly became disappointed with his team’s performance. One evening, Ulbrickson watched the freshman team row against the varsity team, almost beating them.
Although the team spends long hours training for competition, there are only a small handful of major races that take place during the course of the year, and only one of these takes place on the West Coast. Ulbrickson works his crew hard, reasserting Brown’s claim them that rowing is the most difficult sport, since it involves that the athletes be intelligent, quick-thinking, and have enormous powers of concentration in addition to the obvious athletic prowess.
At the University of California, Ky Ebright, the crew coach, was also working with a lackluster varsity team. Ebright was a short, angry man and a great coach, who’d coached an Olympic gold medal team in 1928. Ebright had been a University of Washington coxswain, but later he’d gone to Cal after being passed over for head coach. Ebright quickly built Cal’s program into one of America’s best. He bought his shells from George Pocock, still regarded as the world’s best boatmaker. However, he became suspicious that Pocock had cut a deal with Washington and sold Cal defective boats. Ebright’s suspicions concerning Pocock threatened Pocock’s business. During the Depression, many crew programs disappeared, making it hard for Pocock to stay in business. Ebright goaded Pocock for charging high prices and for working too closely with the Washington team. Offended by Ebright’s accusations, Pocock tried to “smooth things out”; he even began giving rowing advice to Cal coaches. Pocock’s behavior further escalated tensions between Cal and Washington.
Ky Ebright is an even more famous crew coach than Al Ulbrickson, even though he’s only a supporting character in the book. Ebright was a fierce rival to Ulbrickson, and in many ways, their rivalry made crew on the West Coast much stronger than it would otherwise have been. One of Ebright’s most consequential acts as a coach was to goad George Pocock into sharing some of his expert rowing experience with Cal, instead of offering advice exclusively for the University of Washington. The passage conveys the paranoia that dominated the world of college crew in the era before racing shells were mass-produced; one-of-a-kind artisans like George Pocock were so highly sought after that when they worked closely with one crew program, they angered other programs.
By spring of 1934, Bolles had become frustrated with his freshmen—they seemed to be getting slower, not faster. Rowers need to work together, and if one rower’s attentions are divided, the entire boat suffers as a result. Bolles wondered if Joe Rantz was the weakest link on the team—he’d rowed in the third seat (usually reserved for technically proficient rowers) and seventh seat (usually reserved for some of the strongest or most attentive rowers) with little success. Joe was powerful, but his form was poor, and he struggled to work with his team. He continued to feel out of place at the University of Washington—his classmates laughed at his clothes and rough manners.
From the beginning, Joe’s most conspicuous weakness was his inability to work well with other people. He was clearly a talented athlete, with incredible concentration and a powerful body, but he didn’t always get along with his seven fellow oarsmen. As the passage suggests, Joe’s weaknesses as a rower reflected his weaknesses in his new environment; because he couldn’t feel comfortable in class or on campus, he couldn’t succeed in the boat.
By March, the freshman team was doing better. On one occasion, Ulbrickson pitted the freshman, varsity, and junior varsity teams against each other. The freshman team gained a commanding lead, and easily defeated the varsity boat. Bolles realized then that he had “something exceptional.” The freshman team was successful that spring for two distinct reasons. Crew teams’ speeds are determined by their stroke rate and the power of their strokes; the higher the stroke rate, the lower the power is likely to be. Bolles was impressed with the freshman team’s stroke rate and power; he also admired the way they worked together and used their heads to row strategically.
Bolles was a good coach because he recognized the importance of cooperation and teamwork; it was not enough for a group of rowers to be good at rowing quickly or efficiently—they also had to excel at rowing in synchronicity with one another, and they had to be able to think together, in the sense of rowing strategically to save energy.
Around the same time, Ky Ebright and his Cal team were preparing to travel up to Washington for the annual race against Bolles’ team. Ebright had good reason to feel optimistic about his team’s chances; his freshmen were the best he’d ever coached, even better than the freshmen who’d gone on to win Olympic gold in 1932. Knowing that the Cal team was good, Bolles made an effort to make pessimistic statements about his team’s chances in the newspapers, so that Cal would underestimate its opponents.
This passage implies that for large, competitive schools, a good coach doesn’t just have to train their athletes to win, but must also be skilled at playing political games with other coaches. Here, Bolles and Ebright go through the motions of pretending that their teams are no good in the hopes of lulling their competitors into a false sense of security.
On April 13, the teams from Cal and Washington faced off in Lake Washington. Joyce was watching as Joe prepared to row. Lately, she’d been working as a maid in a judge’s house—a job she hated. Joyce, along with tens of thousands of other people, had come out to watch the race, which the people of Seattle regarded as one of the biggest events of the year.
The size of the April 13 race between Cal and Washington testifies to the immense popularity of rowing in the early 20th century—the people of Seattle saw it as their civic duty to come out and support their team.
The freshman teams from Cal and Washington competed first. Cal, rowing with a high stroke rate, got off to an early lead, but Washington brought the race back to a tie by the quarter-mile mark. Slowly, rowing at just thirty strokes per minute, Washington began to overtake Cal at the one-mile mark. By the mile-and-a-half mark, Washington had a decisive lead; it ended up winning by more than four boatlengths, beating the freshman record by twenty seconds. The Seattle crowd cheered. Later, Joe embraced Joyce and danced with her under the Seattle sky.
Washington succeeded in its race against Cal because the rowers knew how to conserve their energy and row efficiently throughout the entire race—rather than simply gaining an early lead and then losing it later on. The Washington rowers shattered the previous record for the course, demonstrating that they were something special—maybe even good enough to make it to the Olympics in 1936.
On the same day, Joseph Goebbels and his wife had a child. Life was good for Goebbels: the Olympic stadium was being torn down and replaced with a larger one. Goebbels had also recently organized a massive book-burning directed at so-called subversive thinkers, including Einstein. He was also investing significant funds in the film industry, recognizing that films could be used to glamorize the Nazi state.
Joseph Goebbels was immoral and devious, but undeniably shrewd; he was hateful enough to order the burning of Einstein’s books (because in the anti-Semitic Third Reich, Einstein was seen as a corrupt purveyor of “Jewish science”) but savvy enough to recognize that film would be an important weapon for Nazi propaganda.
There was a young woman working in the German film industry, a close friend of Hitler, who would go on to “shape the destiny of the Nazi movement.” Her name was Leni Riefenstahl and she had “an indomitable will to succeed.” She was a dancer, an actress, and—rare for a woman the time—a director. Her film The Blue Light was one of Hitler’s favorites; afterwards, he commissioned her to direct Victory of Faith, a propaganda film about a Nazi rally. Goebbels became jealous of Riefenstahl’s success, but he also admired her films and her beauty. Together, Goebbels and Riefenstahl would play a major role in the way the world viewed the 1936 Olympics.
Riefenstahl is remembered as one of the most talented documentarians of the early 20th century, though the fact that she sold her services to Hitler and the Third Reich has made her immensely controversial in recent years, and raises many debates about the moral duty of artists. Like Goebbels, Riefenstahl understood that film could be used to tell useful lies about the Third Reich, stirring up feelings of patriotism and pride.