The Boys in the Boat


Daniel James Brown

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The Boys in the Boat Summary

In the 1930s, the United States was in the grips of the Great Depression. A huge chunk of America’s population was unemployed; industry and agriculture were in ruins. During the 1930s, rowing was one of the most popular sports in the country—as popular as football or basketball in the 21st century. Most of the country’s best crew programs were based out of East Coast colleges such as Harvard or Yale. Around the same time, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. Based on the advice of his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler realized that he could score a major public relations victory by hosting the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin—and in so doing giving his Third Reich the image of being a benevolent, enlightened state despite its murderous treatment of “non-Aryans” and its plans for war and domination in Europe.

In the early 1930s, a young, insecure student named Joe Rantz enrolled at the University of Washington. Joe came from a working-class family from a small town; as a result, he felt that he didn’t really fit in with his wealthier, elitist classmates. Joe’s mother, Nellie, died when Joe was a small child, and his father, Harry Rantz, was an unreliable man who’d abandoned Joe on more than one occasion. After Nellie’s death, Harry married a woman named Thula LaFollette, had several children with her, and then decided to move out with Thula and his younger children, leaving the adolescent Joe to take care of himself. As a result of his harsh circumstances, Joe grew up lonely but also highly self-reliant. He chopped wood to earn money, fished in rivers to find food, and somehow managed to maintain excellent grades in school throughout his teen years. Joe also had a steady girlfriend, Joyce Simdars.

At the University of Washington, Joe tried out for the crew team, coached by the highly respected Al Ulbrickson. Ulbrickson believed that rowers should excel in all aspects of life. He also stressed that trying out for crew would be an exhausting, year-long process. By the end of his freshmen year, however, Joe had made it onto the team, partly because he was used to working hard and enduring pain. Joe also benefited from the coaching of Tom Bolles, the freshman coach, and the world-class shells (rowing boats) designed by George Yeoman Pocock, an English boatbuilder who’d moved to Washington in the 1920s. Between Ulbrickson, Pocock, and Bolles, the University of Washington was making a name for itself as a crew program on the national stage. Its chief rival on the West Coast was the crew program at U. C. Berkeley, coached by the charismatic Ky Ebright. In April of his freshman year, Joe and the other freshmen raced against the freshman team from Cal and won decisively, boding well for their careers in the next three years. Joe and the freshmen also competed at the Hudson Regatta in Poughkeepsie, New York, where they triumphed against better-known East Coast teams.

Around the same time, Adolf Hitler was preparing to host the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Goebbels ordered that a massive Olympic stadium be built, and that the city of Berlin be purged of all evidence of Nazi tyranny. Romani families, who’d been treated cruelly under the Third Reich, were forcibly removed from Berlin; tragically, most of them were later murdered in Nazi death camps. Goebbels also took precautions to ensure that journalists visiting Berlin for the Olympics wouldn’t be able to interview local Jews about their plight under Hitler. Meanwhile, Hitler commissioned the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to make documentaries glorifying Fascist ideals. In the mid-1930s, there were international movements to boycott the Berlin Olympics, headed by political activists who recognized the danger Hitler posed to the world. However, Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee and an anti-Semite himself, refused to entertain the idea of a boycott.

Meanwhile Joe spent his college summers working hard to support himself for the upcoming school year. He continued to feel alienated from his father, stepmother, and half-siblings. Even though they lived in Seattle, very close to his school, Thula prevented Joe from seeing the rest of his family. During Joe’s sophomore year (1934-35) Joe was distracted, in part because of his tragic family situation, and in part because he still felt out of place at the University of Washington. Ulbrickson, determined to send a Washington team to the Olympics in 1936, experimented with different combinations of athletes. He began to realize that while the program had many talented rowers, his students weren’t working together to achieve the synchronicity and close cooperation—in a word, “swing”—necessary for Olympic victory. Washington teams triumphed against Cal in April of 1935, but Washington’s varsity team (which didn’t include Joe) failed to win at the Hudson regatta.

Joe spent the summer of 1935 working on the Grand Coulee dam, alongside several of his teammates. Joe began to realize that he wasn’t as out of place at Washington as he’d supposed—many of his teammates hailed from similar working-class backgrounds. Joe began to develop close friendships with many of his teammates and, in the process, became a better team-player and a better rower. When he returned to school in the fall, Joe befriended Pocock, who told him about the religious experience of rowing in swing with one’s teammates. For the fall and spring, Ulbrickson experimented with different combinations of rowers, eventually settling on a hybrid of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, including Joe. Ulbrickson’s experiments paid off when the Washington varsity team decimated the competition on the East and West Coasts, earning a spot on the American Olympic team.

At the Berlin Olympics, Joe and his teammates faced a series of challenges. Don Hume, the team’s talented stroke, fell seriously ill on the transatlantic voyage to Germany. Furthermore, the team was distracted by the pleasures of Berlin—which, thanks to Goebbels, had been reimagined as a beautiful, tolerant city for its international visitors. The team defeated England in its preliminary heat, and made it to the finals. Despite being placed in the worst lane in the final race, and despite the coxswain Bobby Moch’s failure to notice that the race had begun, the American team triumphed against its competition, winning Olympic gold. Joe was overjoyed by his team’s achievement: after years of loneliness and insecurity, he finally felt that he was part of something great. By defeating the competition, Brown notes, the Americans also dealt a powerful blow to Hitler’s pseudoscientific theories of Nazi superiority, prophesizing Hitler’s eventual defeat in World War Two.

Back in the states, Joe married his sweetheart, Joyce. The 1936 American rowing team went on to successful careers in a variety of fields, and many of them remained close friends for the rest of their long lives. Joe remained married to Joyce for his whole life, and had a long, successful career working for Boeing. He died in the 2000s, his life’s story largely unknown to the public, but inspiring for anyone who knew it.