Two hours after Joe Rantz and his teammates defeated the Cal freshman team, it was time for the varsity teams to face off. The ensuing race turned out to be one of the most famous in crew history. It began with Washington rowing with a low stroke rate, while Cal rowed with a high stroke rate. As the race neared its end, the Washington team brought its stroke rate up to thirty-eight, and then forty, eventually winning the race by less than a second and setting a record for the course. Washington’s victory demonstrated Al Ulbrickson’s methodical style of coaching, emphasizing the role of psychology and teamwork.
Washington prevailed against Cal, it’s implied, because Ulbrickson was a smarter, more mature coach than Ky Ebright. While Ebright—an impatient, impetuous person in real life—encouraged his crew to gain an early lead, Ulbrickson instructed his students to row gradually, forcefully, and efficiently, slowly and steadily gaining the lead they needed. In short, Ulbrickson and Ebright’s teams were reflections of the two coaches’ personalities.
In the days following their victory, the Washington freshman team fell into a slump: they got sloppy, and couldn’t focus on teamwork. One afternoon, the team rowed so poorly that they grazed the side of an incoming tugboat. Bolles was furious and threatened to kick everyone off the team. In the end, however, the threat turned out to be a bluff: in June, the Washington freshmen traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York to compete in the national championship.
The Washington team’s greatest obstacle was itself: as soon as they had some success, they allowed it to distract them from further victory. Bolles was experienced enough to recognize the problem as soon as he saw it; therefore, he insisted that his students remain focused on their upcoming competitions, instead of allowing their victory to make them cocky.
To get to Poughkeepsie, Joe traveled in a luxurious Pullman railway car—courtesy of the university. He played the guitar for his teammates, which made them laugh and make fun of Joe. Joe was hurt—music had been an important part of his life, especially during his lonely days taking care of himself.
Joe succeeded at rowing, but he allowed his insecurities about his past (and the unjustifiable bullying of his teammates) to get to his head. In spite of all his experience taking care of himself, Joe remained strikingly vulnerable.
In Poughkeepsie, the Washington team practiced on the unusual Hudson River course. They rowed poorly, frustrating Bolles—it seemed that the wind and river currents were interfering with the team’s performance. Bolles realized that he would need to talk to Pocock about what to do. That night, the team slept in uncomfortable, hot cots.
The Washington team continued to row erratically and inconsistently—they seemingly couldn’t maintain the concentration necessary for consistent success.
The Poughkeepsie Regatta was an American tradition, stretching all the way back to 1824, when American rowers faced off against a team of British sailors, cheered on by fifty thousand fans. As the 19th century went on, regattas became more and more popular in America, causing an explosion of interest in rowing. Other elite colleges founded crew programs. By the early 20th century, rowing clubs were a staple of wealthy Americans’ lives. Until the mid-1920s, no West Coast school could compete with East Coast rowing; however, this began to change in 1923, under the leadership of Washington’s crew coach, Russell Callow, who led Washington to its first victory at Poughkeepsie, effectively making Washington the national champion. Callow’s team succeeded not only because of its talents but because Callow had arranged for George Pocock to design the team’s shells.
Rowing was more than just a popular sport; it was a reflection of the state of American culture in the early 20th century. At the time, East Coast culture and values dominated the country to a more pronounced degree than now; elite East Coast colleges produced the most powerful people in American society, with little competition from West Coast institutions. In a way, then, the rise of West Coast rowing around the time of Callow’s 1923 victory reflected major changes in the United States, as the West Coast’s culture, values, and economy began to give the East Coast a run for its money.
The clash between West and East Coast crew teams delighted reporters, since it made for a good story. Reporters played up the West Coast teams’ wild, rough, brawny qualities, while emphasizing their East Coast counterparts’ intelligence, sophistication, and refinement. Joe and his teammates fit snugly into the traditional east-west narrative: “old money versus no money at all.”
In part, the West-East rivalry in rowing reflected real cultural differences, but in part it reflected sports journalists’ desire to create a good story that would get people talking.
On June 16, the teams prepared for their race. Poughkeepsie was brimming with crew fans, eagerly awaiting the competition. The freshman teams were first. Joe and his teammates were most intimidated by the Syracuse team, which had won three of the last four freshman titles. Syracuse took an early lead in the race, followed closely by Washington. Then, gradually, Washington crept into the lead. One of the Syracuse rowers fell off-rhythm, and the team never recovered—Washington beat Syracuse, the nearest team, by five boatlengths. The Washington team’s victory stunned sports fans across the country: Washington had rowed steadily from start to finish, barely breaking its rhythm. After the freshman race and the junior varsity race came the varsity race. Quickly, the race boiled down to a competition between Cal and Washington. The two West Coast teams alternated between first and second several times. Then, in the last quarter-mile, Cal pulled ahead, winning by less than a boatlength.
Washington’s victory against the larger, better-established East Coast crew teams was significant, both because it emphasized the growing clout of West Coast rowing and West Coast cultural influence in general, and because it proved that Ulbrickson had found a strikingly new way to coach crew: Ulbrickson emphasized consistency, and a slow, steady approach to the sport. While Washington lost its most prestigious race at the Hudson Regatta, it nonetheless made a name for itself by dominating the freshman competition (and the fact that Cal and Washington dominated the varsity race further proved the strength of West Coast rowing).
As the Washington team traveled back to the West Coast, America was beginning to “dry up and blow away.” The summer of 1934 was very hot, worsening topsoil erosion in the Midwest. Farmers abandoned their property and drove westward. Furthermore, when Joe got back to Seattle, he found that there was now a major union strike underway. On July 18, members of the International Longshoreman’s Association prevented ships from unloading cargo, in spite of the Seattle police force’s aggression. Around this time, Franklin Roosevelt was under fire for not doing enough to fight the Depression. Others criticized him for his Communist tendencies.
While Joe and his peers were busy perfecting their rowing, the country was going through some major changes. As a sign of popular unrest and economic depression, tens of thousands of union workers went on strike in the city of Seattle. There was a general feeling of frustration—Roosevelt had campaigned on the promise that he would fight the Great Depression, but some people faulted him for not doing enough, while others criticized him for being too radical in his approach.
In August of 1934, Franklin Roosevelt traveled to the tiny Washington town of Ephrata to announce the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, which could generate millions of dollars of cheap electrical power for the western United States, and provide tens of thousands of people with jobs. His speech galvanized all who heard it; it reminded the working-class people of the Pacific Northwest that they could improve their lives by “pitching in and pulling together.”
Roosevelt was one of the most effective orators of his era; here, he showcased his talents for delivering inspiring yet level-headed rhetoric that promised concrete solutions to peoples’ problems. Roosevelt’s speech emphasized the value of cooperation—an important value, both for Americans in general and rowers in particular.