Perhaps the most important theme of The Boys in the Boat is teamwork, both in the sense of working as part of a literal team and the metaphorical sense of trusting and cooperating with other people. In the book, Daniel James Brown examines the 1936 American Olympic rowing team, made up mostly of juniors from the University of Washington. In order to succeed at the Berlin Olympics, the Americans had to learn how to work together to achieve a common goal—a gold medal. As the book explains, rowing is one of the most collaborative sports: on an eight-oar rowing team, all eight rowers must move in perfect or near-perfect synchronization. Even a tiny mistake can throw off the delicate rhythm of the team. Because oarsmen need to move together so precisely, they must develop a close psychological bond of friendship and respect to succeed. The Boys in the Boat isn’t just the story of how the 1936 Olympic rowers perfected their technique and power; it’s about how the nine teammates (eight oarsmen plus a coxswain) learned to work together, and became lifelong friends in the process.
In particular, Brown studies the importance of teamwork by documenting the life of one of the nine Olympic team members: Joe Rantz. Joe’s life probably captures the importance of trust, cooperation, and respect more succinctly than that of any of his teammates. Joe’s early life was full of tragedy, which pushed him to become more isolated and individualistic. His mother died when he was a child; shortly afterwards, his father, Harry Rantz, fled to Canada, leaving Joe to live with his aunt. A few years later, Harry married another woman, Thula LaFollette, and began taking care of his son once again. But then he and Thula decided to move away and leave Joe, not yet an adult, to fend for himself. Joe rose to the task of providing for himself with impressive initiative and drive—the very qualities that later made him an excellent rower. But he also trained himself not to rely on any other human beings—after so many years of betrayal and disappointment, he concluded that he couldn’t depend on anyone other than himself.
When he attended the University of Washington and joined the crew team, though, Joe’s independence proved to be a liability. He was a talented athlete, but because he was hesitant to befriend his teammates or form a bond of trust with them, he struggled to grow from a good rower into a great one. In his junior year, however, Joe began to let some of his defenses come down—and, not coincidentally, he became a much better rower. He spent a summer working alongside two of his teammates and received expert advice from George Pocock, the Washington team’s adviser and a renowned boatmaker. Pocock encouraged Joe to trust his teammates—he had no choice but to depend on them in the heat of the race. Pocock characterized a good crew team’s trust and teamwork as a kind of religious ecstasy. Over the course of the book, then, Joe begins to open up with his teammates, eventually becoming so close with them that they were able to get into swing—i.e., row in perfect unison—almost without trying. By the end of 1936, the University of Washington team was the best in the world: not just because of the individual rowers’ strength or form, but because all nine teammates had learned to work together.
It’s often said that the way people play sports represents the way they live their lives. In the case of the 1936 rowing team, the cliché is true: having developed such a close bond, the nine teammates exceled at working with other people for the rest of their lives. Many of the teammates remained friends for decades to come; indeed, Joe Rantz was still close with his teammate Roger Morris in the 2000s. Furthermore, many of the teammates worked at Boeing together. In spite of his lonely, isolated early years, Joe Rantz had a long, happy life: he had a great job, a loving wife, and wonderful friends. As the book suggests, Joe finally achieved the “religious experience” to which George Pocock alluded. Furthermore, once he learned how to embrace the special feeling of trust and teamwork as a rower, Joe continued to embrace that feeling in every area of his life.
Teamwork and Trust ThemeTracker
Teamwork and Trust Quotes in The Boys in the Boat
I shook Joe's hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that I’d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, "But not just about me. It has to be about the boat."
It didn’t help that [Joe Rantz] continued to feel like everyone’s poor cousin. With the weather remaining cool, he still had to wear his ragged sweater to practice almost every day, and the boys still teased him continuously for it.
Back in February [Al Ulbrickson] had commented […] that "there are more good individual men on this year's squad than on any I have coached." The fundamental problem lay in the fact that he had felt compelled to throw that word "individual" into the sentence. There were too many days when they rowed not as crews but as boatfuls of individuals. The more he scolded them for personal technical issues, even as he preached teamsmanship, the more the boys seemed to sink into their own separate and sometimes defiant little worlds.
As Joe raised a hand to acknowledge the wave of applause rising to greet him, he found himself struggling desperately to keep back tears. He had never let himself dream of standing in a place like this, surrounded by people like these. It startled him but at the same time it also filled him with gratitude, and as he stood at the front of the room that day acknowledging the applause, he felt a sudden surge of something unfamiliar—a sense of pride that was deeper and more heartfelt than any he had ever felt before.
For the most part, though, they stayed in Grand Coulee, where they could toss a football around in the sagebrush, chuck rocks off the edges of the cliffs, bask shirtless on stone ledges in the warm morning sun, sit bleary-eyed in the smoke around a campfire at night telling ghost stories as coyotes yelped in the distance, and generally act like the teenagers they actually were—free and easy boys, cut loose in the wide expanse of the western desert.
Joe and Joyce took the four children out for ice cream and then stopped by a grocery store and bought some basic provisions before dropping them off back at the house. By the next day, when Joe checked, Harry and Thula had returned. But Joe couldn't fathom what his father and Thula had been thinking. Apparently this had been going on all summer long.
Pocock paused and stepped back from the frame of the shell and put his hands on his hips, carefully studying the work he had so far done. He said for him the craft of building a boat was like religion. It wasn't enough to master the technical details of it. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart.
"That was a tough year. I wasn't liked at all," he later said. "I demanded they do better, so I made a lot of enemies." Moch drove those boys like Simon Legree with a whip. He had a deep baritone voice that was surprising in a man so small, and he used it to good effect, bellowing out commands with absolute authority. But he was also canny enough to know when to let up on the crew, when to flatter them, when to implore them, when to joke around with them. Slowly he won his new crewmates over.
As they flew down the last few hundred yards, their eight taut bodies rocked back and forth like pendulums, in perfect synchronicity. Their white blades flashed above the water like the wings of seabirds flying in formation. With every perfectly executed stroke, the expanse between them and the now exhausted Cal boys widened. In airplanes circling overhead, press photographers struggled to keep both boats in the frame of a single shot.
They were now representatives of something much larger than themselves—a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together—trust in one another, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another—those were also part of what America meant to all of them.
In the white-hot emotional furnace of those final meters at Grünau, Joe and the boys had finally forged the prize they had sought all season, the prize Joe had sought nearly all his life. Now he felt whole. He was ready to go home.
Roger Morris, the first of Joe’s friends on crew, was the last man standing. Roger died on July 22, 2009. At his memorial service, Judy rose and recalled how in their last few years Joe and Roger would often get together—in person or on the phone—and do nothing at all, hardly speaking, just sitting quietly, needing only to be in each other's company.