It was January 14, 1935, and the Washington crew team sat on the benches, waiting for Al Ulbrickson to make his announcements concerning the upcoming rowing season. Ulbrickson began by saying that the team would focus on getting into peak physical condition, rather than technique. He added that his goal was to send Washington athletes to the Olympic games in 1936. He insisted that some of his team would end up on the podium in Berlin—a statement that made the team cheer. After Ulbrickson’s speech, rivalries broke out on the team. Nobody was sure who Ulbrickson was talking about when he’d brought up Berlin, but everyone secretly hoped he’d been talking about them. The nine sophomores believed that Ulbrickson had been referring to them; however, Ulbrickson also seemed interested in sending a varsity rower named Broussais C. Beck Junior to Berlin. Joe noticed that Beck was a wealthy, spoiled student.
Ulbrickson had carefully refrained from showering the sophomore team with praise for fear that the team would become overly cocky and lazy. Now, he praises the entire Washington crew team, thereby encouraging the sophomores to compete with their peers for Olympic glory. In other words, Ulbrickson deliberately fostered a rivalry within his team, recognizing that such a rivalry would probably made his rowers stronger. In part, the rivalry that broke out on the team was a class-based rivalry: Joe in particular resented the fact that his wealthier peers were being considered for the same place on the Olympic rowing team.
Tom Bolles, in charge of the new freshman crew, realized that he might be able to assemble an even better team than the one he’d assembled last year. But during this time there was a flu outbreak on campus, and many students were sick. Meanwhile, the newspaper published a story about the sophomores’ Olympic chances, outraging the varsity team. Bobby Moch, the coxswain of the JV team, took advantage of the fact that Bob Green, a sophomore rower, liked to shout while he rowed. While Bob shouted, Moch would whisper to his own rowers to take twenty big strokes “after five more” (i.e., wait five strokes and then take the twenty big strokes). Then, when Green fell silent, Moch would turn to the sophomores and yell, “Green just opened his big mouth again. Let’s pass them”—by which point his boat would already be accelerating forward, “as if by magic.” Moch’s tactic always made the sophomore rowers lose their cool—especially Joe. Ulbrickson began to doubt his sophomores’ abilities—he’d expected them to emerge as the new varsity lineup, but now they couldn’t even beat the JV team.
The rivalry within the Washington rowing team was intended to make the rowers stronger in the end; however, this passage suggests that it had the opposite effect. Instead of strengthening the rowers, the rivalry made them increasingly insecure; for example, Bobby Moch’s teasing trickery caused Bob Green and his sophomore peers to question their own abilities. Moch’s performance reminds readers that although the coxswain isn’t an oarsman, he plays a crucial role in his boat, determining the strategy that will or won’t bring the team to victory.
On afternoon, Ulbrickson summoned his sophomores into his office and told them that they weren’t trying hard enough: they were sloppy and lazy. The talk was devastating for Joe, as well as Roger Morris and Shorty Hunt, Joe’s two closest friends. Shorty Hunt went on to become one of the best rowers in Washington history. He was also a good student, a handsome man, and a member of student government; however, he was thin-skinned, and couldn’t deal with teammates’ taunts. Like Shorty, Joe felt intense self-doubt after meeting with Ulbrickson.
So far, the book has offered relatively little information about the other rowers on the Washington team; here, however, readers begin to learn that there were many others who hailed from a background similar to Joe Rantz’s own. Like Joe, the other sophomore rowers struggled with insecurity and self-doubt; before they made it to the Olympics, they had to learn how to control their own minds.
In the weeks following Ulbrickson’s meeting, the sophomores began performing better. But they had bad days, too, during which they seemed incapable of cooperating. Nevertheless, Ulbrickson began listing the sophomores as the varsity team. Thinking ahead to Berlin, Ulbrickson wondered if he’d be able to use any of the freshmen in two years. In particular, he wondered about Don Hume, a talented freshman who rowed very consistently. Ulbrickson also liked the JV rower Jim McMillin, a powerful athlete. As March approached, Ulbrickson began mixing athletes from different boats. He came to realize the team’s problem: there were too many talented individuals, and not enough team players.
Ulbrickson began to experiment with different strategies and combinations of rowers—a period that proved invaluable in assembling the future Olympic team. Ulbrickson’s key insight was that rowing was a team sport, not a sport for talented individuals. Training an Olympic team wasn’t just a matter of teaching his students how to row quickly and efficiently; rather, winning a gold medal would require the teammates to learn how to work together.
In April, the weather became sunny again, and Joe and Joyce rented a canoe. On the water, they talked about getting married one day soon, and Joe sang and played the guitar for Joyce. The next day, Joe traveled out to visit his father. Harry hadn’t seen Joe in almost six years, and he seemed nervous about having to talk with his son. Joe asked about his half-siblings, and Harry seemed relieved not to have to talk about the day he abandoned Joe in Sequim.
One reason that Joe struggled with insecurity even after learning to take care of himself from an early age was that Harry, his father, kept coming back into his life—and then leaving abruptly. Harry, it seems pretty clear, was a weak, cowardly man, who never knew how to be a good parent, and preferred to run away from his problems.
One of the most important concepts in rowing, Brown says, is the concept of “swing.” Swing is a moment in which all eight oarsmen are rowing in perfect unison, so that the boat moves fluidly and gracefully. The advantage of swing is that it allows the oarsmen to row very efficiently for long periods of time. Ulbrickson knew that Joe and his teammates had found their swing the day they won at Poughkeepsie; he was determined to help them find it again. He officially declared the sophomores to be the varsity crew; however, he was frustrated that the sophomores couldn’t always find their swing. After beating the sophomores in a race, the JV team petitioned Ulbrickson to be named the varsity team; Ulbrickson reluctantly declared that whoever rowed faster at Oakland would row at the Pacific Coast Regatta. Meanwhile, Ky Ebright was having a hard time managing his team. The same rowers who had been the best in the country were now incapable of beating sophomores from Washington.
Swing is the perfect metaphor for the teamwork and cooperation that eventually lead Joe and his peers to Olympic glory: the only way for rowers “get in swing” is to learn to cooperate with one another both on and off the water. For the time being, Joe and his peers hadn’t developed their special bond of friendship; as a result, they could only rarely get in swing with each other. Ulbrickson, to his credit, recognized the importance of swing, and devoted a lot of time to perfecting swing. Ulbrickson also had the unenviable task of managing his team’s rivalries—the very rivalries that he’d helped to create by announcing that Washington would be going to the Olympics in 1936.
On April 7, the Washington team was in California, preparing for their time trial. Ebright and Ulbrickson spoke to reporters, doing their best to sound pessimistic about their teams’ chances. On April 10, the JV Washington team defeated the sophomores by a boatlength. Nevertheless, after the sophomores raced again—this time using the shell they’d used to win at Poughkeepsie last year—Ulbrickson decided to race the sophomores, despite what he’d promised.
Ulbrickson committed a major mistake as a coach—he broke his promise to his JV students, making himself seem temperamental and unreliable. A good coach must also be a good leader, and Ulbrickson may have severely challenged his students’ trust and respect for him when he broke his promise.
On April 13, the Washington sophomores prepared to race Cal. First up were the Washington freshmen, however: they easily defeated the California team. Next were the JV rowers. Still angry about being demoted, the team pulled ahead of Cal halfway through the race and then began raising their stroke rate, as if “unleashing months’ worth of frustration.” The team went on to beat Cal by eight boatlengths.
The passage is a great example of how rivalry and frustration can be powerful motivators in a race: the JV team triumphed, it’s implied, because they were so furious at Ulbrickson and the sophomores for booting them out of the top spot.
Finally, it was time for the varsity teams to race. Joe and the other rowers knew they had a lot to prove. The race kicked off with Washington in the lead; then, Cal jumped ahead by less than a boatlength. As the teams approached the halfway mark, Cal increased its lead. Cal increased its stroke rate, but George Morry, coxswain for the sophomores, remembered what Ulbrickson had told him—resist the temptation to increase the stroke rate. Gradually, the Washington team climbed back to tie Cal. As the teams rowed to the finish, it was too close to call. A referee shouted that Washington had won; the others that Cal had won. The radio broadcaster announced, California wins.” Then, suddenly, he announced that Washington had won by six feet—this was the official result.
The Washington team triumphed against Cal, it’s strongly implied, because the athletes had something to prove. Sports rivalries, especially rivalries within a time, can be powerful motivators: in this case, the sophomores’ rivalry with the JV team almost forced both boat to try their hardest against Cal—had either boat failed to win that day, they would have given their rivals something to laugh about, and called their status as future Olympians into question.
The sophomores had rowed to great success: they’d proved that Ulbrickson was right to promote them to varsity. Back in Seattle, they were greeted as heroes—they were summoned to the mayor’s office and given awards for bringing honor to their state. This was one of the happiest moments of Joe’s life—he’d never dreamed he’d be so honored for his achievements.