I have never rowed. I have never read a rowing book that I can remember. If all stories about rowing were written like Daniel Brown's fabulous multi-level biography, I would read every one of them. This is a wonderful account, told with such detail and precision that I sometimes felt as if I were in this tale. Mr. Brown totally sucked me into his adventure. These young men who rowed for the USA in the 1936 Olympics faced huge obstacles. It was the Depression. Many were dirt-poor. They came from a small (then) and nondescript town of Seattle. They could not have had more difficult problems thrown their way. But by taking every sliver of hope, and mixing in superb craftsmanship (from George Pocock), excellent coaching (Al Ulbrickson), and these nine perfectly attuned young men learning together........the result was perfection. This is a true Team sport. I learned that. It is nice to learn something you never knew, but is common knowledge to an entire set of other people. If you want to read a great, true story of success, this will fit the bill in spades.....and you will understand rowing to boot.
The research is mostly based on primary resources, including interviews with some members who were still living as the book was pulled together. Family members did supply additional information to make this undertaking feel solid and well thought out.
Concepts from Daniel Brown to consider that are mixed into the story to teach all of us: 1) One of the fundamental challenges in rowing is that when any one member of a crew goes into a slump the entire crew goes with him. 2) There are certain laws of physics by which all crew coaches live and die. The speed of a racing shell is determined primarily by two factors: the power produced by the combined strokes of the oars, and the stroke rate, the number of strokes the crew takes each minute. 3) To defeat an adversary who was your equal, maybe even your superior, it wasn't necessarily enough just to give your all from start to finish. You had to master your opponent mentally. When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not- that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown. 4) 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. There are other great ideas to ponder in this epic almost 400 page, could-not-put-down story.
I am not giving away anything by telling you that they DO win Gold at the 1936 Olympics. It is HOW they did it that is so darn exciting. Even knowing the end result does not diminish this bigger than life adventure. This is a must read, period.
on May 2, 2013
Based on meticulous research including considerable primary resources and oral narrative, Daniel Brown's story of the University of Washington rowing crew that won gold in the 1936 Olympics, gives an experiential look at the athletes who lacked the amenities, family devotion and corporate sponsorships that today are pretty much viewed as essential for achieving such success. Shaped by the social, economic and political challenges of the Dust Bowl, Depression and the simmering hostilities in Europe, these young men developed the "harmony, balance and rhythm" necessary not only to triumph in Berlin but to thrive in life. Knowing nothing about rowing, this book was intellectually and spiritually satisfying. Brown did an excellent job of developing the character of the individuals as well as the society in which they lived. Parallel developments in Europe provided a good counterpoint and context for understanding the complexity of thought and behavior of the time. It also points to the significant role that coaches play in the formation of any athlete and the importance of seeing the whole person vs. some subset of the totality that is who we are. "And so they passed away, loved and remembered for all that they were ~ not just Olympic oarsmen, but good men, one and all."
This is a wonderful and true story about the 1936 University of Washington varsity crew, eight young men who rowed into history. Daniel James Brown writes so well that history becomes personal, the distant past becomes immediate, and the now dead men and women are alive again in the mind of the reader. He describes the sport of rowing in great detail and with accuracy, no mean feat for someone who never rowed. His writing is comparable to David Halberstam, author of The Amateurs, in quality and in scope. In fact, Mr. Brown has surpassed him with this book. The author, who is unfortunate enough to share a name with Dan Brown of DaVinci Code infamy, does a thorough report on the men in the boat, their families, their coaches, the history of the 1930's, and the science of sport.
Many of the old luminaries of American rowing are in this story, the good, the bad, and the legendary, including Hiram Conibear, Tom Bolles, Al Ulbrickson and George Pocock. The story of the Pocock racing shell, which was still the best racing boat in the US when I started rowing, is detailed, along with the life story of George Pocock, his personality, and his contributions to Washington crews.
At times the author gets a bit over enthusiastic, and comes close to melodrama. Some of the rowing details were overwrought, particularly during the races. He describes the crews as "furiously hacking at the choppy water..." That doesn't describe the sport of rowing, except for raw beginners. Nevertheless, I only have minor complaints: it is a well written story.
This is a recommended read for anyone who has suffered through a season of rowing. It brought back all the anxiety of fighting for a seat in the boat, the hours of self doubt, the pain of training in bad weather, with bad combinations of rowers, and the joy of getting it right, feeling the boat fly. This is an inspirational story, one that will lift you up, and it is wonderful, not only because Brown is a great writer, but because it is true.
Daniel James Brown's "The Boys in the Boat" is an outstanding account of nine man crew that captured the gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Like "Seabiscuit" this book transcends the subject of "rowing". It transports you to another place and time. The story is told through the eyes of Joe Rantz, a remarkable man who overcame much adversity to be sitting in that shell on the Langer See in 1936. So many colorful characters are brought vividly to life, the coach, Al Ulbrickson, the boat maker, George Yeoman Pocock. The writing is suberb. this is a MUST READ!! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!
As a lifelong Husky fan, I was excited when I read the synopsis that this was about the 1936 University Of Washington crew. I'd always been more familiar with the eight that won the 1948 World Championship over the USSR crew in Moscow(since the brother of an advisor to my Scout troop had rowed in that crew), but I love tales of "small-town" Seattle and the Greatest Generation, so I dove eagerly into it.
Trust me, this is not a book simply about rowing, but also is about what the West, the United States, and Europe were going through in the mid-1930's, as Nazi Germany was flexing its muscles. It also touches on class systems in the US and Great Britain. I was immediately strongly reminded of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend and her Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, and the subjects of both books come up in "Boys In The Boat", as both Seabiscuit and Louie Zamperini were running around tracks at this time(and Zamperini was to also compete in Berlin). Some non-fiction books are so well-done that they almost read like novels, which is the case with this book, the Hillenbrands I mentioned, George McGovern's The Great Coalfield War, and Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Coincidentally, Egan & Hillenbrand are both cited in this book.(as is the patron saint of Lesser Seattle, Emmett Watson)
Although I've seen many races through Seattle's Montlake Cut, I never knew until reading this that crew races were formerly staged over 3 miles(rather than 2000 meters) on Lake Washington(and the Oakland estuary and the Hudson River), or that they ran north of Sand Point all the way to Sheridan Beach, or that viewing trains ran along the course from University Station(?!?)on what is now the Burke-Gilman Trail(the former Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway). I'd never known that the famous shell builder, George Pocock, had won the Thames boatman's race(Doggett's Coat and Badge) before emigrating to Vancouver and Seattle with his brother.
I'd known for years(pre-"House") that actor Hugh Laurie had rowed for Cambridge, but was unaware that his father had also won his rowing Blue and rowed stroke oar there and on the 1936 England Olympic crew. Actually, Laurie didn't know until he found a medal among his father's socks. The coxswain on the Cambridge and England eight was John Noel Duckworth. When captured by the Japanese, Duckworth objected to his captors' treatment of his fellow prisoners who were wounded and offered that he himself be mistreated. He was a POW at Changi camp in Singapore(think James Clavell & "King Rat"), and then was moved to the Siam Railway project(think "Bridge On The River Kwai"). We American's aren't the only people with a Greatest Generation.
Brown chooses to focus on one member of the UW crew who he happened to become acquainted with, Joe Rantz, and Rantz's childhood, adolescence, and struggles to pay tuition are almost worthy of a single book. Rantz was able to endure his mother's death, being abandoned as a teen by his father & new wife, and muscling a jackhammer(while dangling from ropes)working on the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam.
Once the UW crew and the Olympic team reaches Germany and Berlin, Brown gives more insights into life in and around mid-1930's Berlin, as well as into the disagreements between Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl's. Having seen both Riefenstahl's "Triumph Of The Will" and "Olympia", this was very interesting.
I really can't recommend this book highly enough. While I loved "Seabiscuit", I'm not a horse racing fan. With Louie Zamperini's spiritual redemption in "Unbroken", I could care less about Billy Graham, but loved the book. As regards "Boys In The Boat", while I'm not a huge crew fan(though I'll always root for the Husky Navy), as I said previously, this is not simply about the sport of rowing, but is so much more.
on April 23, 2014
"The Boys in the Boat" is the well-researched tale of the University of Washington rowing crew that captured a gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Author Brown adroitly ties together a wide net of coaching problems, family issues, myriad rowing technicalities, and timely political hot points to name a few. Readers will definitely learn how a serious crew is put together. The author also shines a sometimes critical light on the Nazi rise to power of the early 1930s. There was no escaping the intrusion of politics in this particular Olympiad, since the Nazi hierarchy carefully planned the Games as a major propaganda ploy. This knavery appears to have succeeded-in the short term. Of special note is the portrayal of a gussied up Berlin and the dramatic opening ceremonies.
The preceding is the positive news. The more bothersome aspects of BB include: The technicalities of competitive rowing are vastly overstated. What was fascinating at first became repetitive and even mundane. All sports have their technical parts. Even an outwardly simple game like baseball can be made blindingly boring by the paralysis of analysis. Also, there were far too numerous "crucial" meets on the road to Berlin. All those big time races in Oakland, Poughkeepsie and Seattle blended into each other. This pronounced buildup almost manages to make the actual Olympic events an anticlimax. This text needed to be thinned out. That proverbial "stern editor with a sharp blue pencil" was sorely needed here. That statement is in no way meant as a criticism of the author. Brown is an enthusiastic guy who may have become carried away with his work. The burden here lies with the publisher to restore some order. Maybe all those editors have been laid off, but the need for pruning continues.
The rating above is a tad stern but one has to call them as he sees them. Serious crew fans, Seattle natives and Husky fans will wish to add a star or two to the rating above. Those good folks may have strong, even patriotic feeling about "The Boys in the Boat". Those sentiments are fully respected by this reader. It is that kind of story.
Nine men working as one, oars feathering and dipping in perfect unison into the silent water, causing barely a ripple on the dark surface as they glide the Husky Clipper with supreme grace between the sea and the stars. This image is one of many indelibly imprinted on my mind from Daniel James Brown's excellent book "The Boys in the Boat." Far more than a sports book, this is a story about life, love, teamwork, perseverance, national pride, and more, impeccably researched and beautifully written by Mr. Brown. "The Boys in the Boat" definitely rates as one of the best books I have read this year, and probably the past several years.
In the 1920s and 30's rowing was one of the most popular sports in the United States. The sculls of the privileged eastern Ivy League schools ruled the water for years until rivals from California and the University of Washington began to challenge them seriously in the yearly national championships. The eight man scull (nine counting the coxswain) was the premiere rowing event of the time, and California won gold in the event in the 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games. The fall of 1933 saw America and the world in the midst of the Great Depression, and Seattle was still mostly thought of as a backwater. On the University of Washington campus, however, something historic was happening. Coaches Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson were beginning to put together what many consider to be the greatest eight-oar crew of all time. Their goal - American victory the 1936 Olympics in Berlin Germany in front of Adolph Hitler and the rising Nazi party elite.
Whereas the crews from the traditional eastern powerhouses of the Ivy League were mostly made up of wealthy sons of privilege, the Washington crew was made up of poor boys, true sons of the depression. They had to work off-season jobs as lumberjacks, farmers, shipyard workers and jackhammer operators dangling from cliffs by ropes on the new Grand Coulee Dam project just to (barely) pay for school.
The story is told mainly from the perspective of Joe Rantz. Joe is abandoned by his father and his stepmother at an early age to fend for himself. Toughened by years of hard work and hustling just to get by, Joe is finally accepted into the nearby University of Washington where he guts it out to make the rowing team. The team rows in the cold, in rain, in choppy conditions, and even in the ice and snow of the Pacific Northwest. Joe fights for a seat in the boat and over time learns about love, friendship, trust, balance, and how to fly or "swing" in the boat, truly touching the divine.
No recount of this book would be complete without a mention of George Pocock, the English boat building legend who hand crafted his unmatched wooden racing sculls in the loft of the Washington boat house. Pocock is nearly Yoda-like in his dispensing of sage advice about rowing and life in his own quiet way, and becomes a vital part of the Washington team.
I am not a rower and knew very little about the sport before reading this book other than watching it in the Olympics and seeing the boats ply the Charles River in the early morning on past trips to Boston. Author Daniel James Brown makes the sport and the history of this remarkable team truly come alive in a way I did not expect. Very highly recommended.
Special note: The photos included in the book are excellent, and deserve a special mention. Doing additional research after finishing "The Boys in the Boat" I was surprised to find terrific footage of the team in action on YouTube in a clip from Leni Riefenstahl's controversial film about the 1936 Berlin games, "Olympia."
This is one of those stories wherein you did not know you could be so interested in a subject for which prior to the book you had absolutely no interest- rowing- totally not interested. And then I read The Boys in the Boat.
There is a mix of detailed descriptions of the wood to make the boat, the skill of rowing, the history of the time, and then there's the story of Joe Rantz too. It is a slow gentle moving story until Daniel James Brown writes of the races and then it moves quickly. And after the race it's back to applying the varnish to the silk.
George Pocock was the master builder of all rowing boats of that time and they were made to perfection and then it was up to the crew and the coach.
"The trick would be to find which few of them had the potential for raw power, the nearly superhuman stamina, the indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique. And which of them coupled improbably with all those other qualities, had the most important one: the ability to disregard his own ambitions, to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat." Nothing outside the boat.
"And a man couldn't harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew. It wasn't just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to, even if it meant getting his feelings hurt."
And being vulnerable to a boat full of peers was a tough thing for Joe Rantz. His father and step mother had the car packed and the step siblings piled in the car when ten year old Joe came home from school one day and his father told Joe that he would not be coming with them, "But can't I just come along?"
"No, that won't work, Son, if there's one thing I've figured out about life, it's that if you want to be happy, you have to learn how to be happy on your own." And then Joe's father got in the car, closed the door, and drove out of his life.
Meanwhile, Hitler was making a stadium of mammoth proportions to host the 1936 Olympic Games to prove to the world his Aryan race was superior. And off in the northwestern part of the United States Joe Rantz had scraped money together to be at the University of Washington. His clothing consisted of one outfit and he was always hungry and slept in a converted coal room in the basement of the YMCA building, but he was there. And he joined the rowing team.
on October 28, 2014
Anybody who loves competitive athletics or people will be captivated by the true events in this book. These young men fought against great odds and won! They knew what they had to do, and they were willing to pay the price for victory. A sport like rowing, or any intense endurance sport, always involves pain and dedicated training over a long period of time. Sacrifices must be made. The odds are usually against them ever being good enough to overcome the obstacles and the top-flight competition waiting just ahead on the road to victory. But...this book is based on real people and real events. It is not fiction. In fact, after I read the book, I bought Leni Riefenstahl's film "Olympia," the classic story of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Just as I had hoped, I got to see the finish of the great Olympic race depicted in this book. I recommend both the book and the film.
on April 15, 2013
Wow, what a wonderfully written book. I did not feel like I was reading a book about the past, but that I was in the past watching events happen. The descriptions of the people, places, and times allowed one to experience the events taking place.
The descriptions of the characters allowed me get to know who they were, how they got to where they were, and what happened in their early lives that lead them there.
This is a book about overcoming obstacles and winning against odds. The sport could have been football, or tennis, or even checkers. The greatness of this book lies not in the sport or people or the times being described, but in the wonderfully done descriptions of the sport, the people, and the times. It is simply excellent writing that allows one to live the history that the author describes.
I completely enjoyed reading this book.