The Boys in the Boat

Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

Finished 2.12.17 / 4 stars

And perhaps that was the worst of it. Whether you were a banker or a baker, a homemaker or homeless, it was with you night and day—a terrible, unrelenting uncertainty about the future, a feeling that the ground could drop out from under you for good at any moment.

FDR had come into office brimming with optimism and trumpeting a raft of slogans and programs. But Herbert Hoover had come in spouting equal optimism, buoyantly predicting that a day would soon come when poverty would be washed out of American life forever. “Ours is a land rich in resources; stimulating in its glorious beauty; filled with millions of happy homes; blessed with comfort and opportunity,” Hoover had said at his inaugural, before adding words that would soon prove particularly ironic: “In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure.”

“Aren’t you nervous?” Joe whispered. Roger glanced back at him. “I’m panicked. I just look like this to demoralize the competition.”

“I don’t see why you should have the slightest difficulty in adjusting the trend of what you write to the interests of the State. It is possible that the Government may sometimes be mistaken—as to individual measures—but it is absurd to suggest that anything superior to the Government might take its place. What is the use, therefore, of editorial skepticism? It can only make people uneasy.” But just to make sure, the same week, the new Nazi government had enacted a separate measure imposing the death penalty on those who published “treasonable articles.”

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.

If you simply kept your eyes open, it seemed, you just might find something valuable in the most unlikely of places. The trick was to recognize a good thing when you saw it, no matter how odd or worthless it might at first appear, no matter who else might just walk away and leave it behind.

Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body, despite the fact that a rower, as Al Ulbrickson liked to put it, “scrimmages on his posterior annex.” And rowing makes these muscular demands not at odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite.

The result of all this muscular effort, on both the larger scale and the smaller, is that your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any other human endeavor. Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race—the Olympic standard—takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.

the first and most fundamental thing that all novice oarsmen must learn about competitive rowing in the upper echelons of the sport: that pain is part and parcel of the deal. It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.

He learned to see hope where a boy thought there was no hope, to see skill where skill was obscured by ego or by anxiety. He observed the fragility of confidence and the redemptive power of trust. He detected the strength of the gossamer threads of affection that sometimes grew between a pair of young men or among a boatload of them striving honestly to do their best.

It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them. —George Yeoman Pocock

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. A baseball team or a basketball team may very well triumph even if its star player is off his game. But the demands of rowing are such that every man or woman in a racing shell depends on his or her crewmates to perform almost flawlessly with each and every pull of the oar. The movements of each rower are so intimately intertwined, so precisely synchronized with the movements of all the others, that any one rower’s mistake or subpar performance can throw off the tempo of the stroke, the balance of the boat, and ultimately the success of the whole crew. More often than not, it comes down to a lack of concentration on one person’s part.

Rowing a race is an art, not a frantic scramble. It must be rowed with head power as well as hand power. From the first stroke all thoughts of the other crew must be blocked out. Your thoughts must be directed to you and your own boat, always positive, never negative. —George Yeoman Pocock

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, something that once revealed would make him doubt himself, make him falter just when it counted the most. Like so much in life, crew was partly about confidence, partly about knowing your own heart.

The first collegiate crew race in America—and in fact the first American intercollegiate athletic event of any kind—took place between Harvard and Yale in 1852, on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

If there was little they could do individually to turn the situation around, perhaps there was something they could do collectively. Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something more fundamental—the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.

He was fascinated, intrigued by the idea that he could learn to see what others could not see in the wood, thrilled as always at the notion that something valuable could be found in what others had passed over and left behind.

There seemed to Joe to be some kind of connection between what he was doing here among a pile of freshly split shakes, what Pocock was doing in his shop, and what he was trying to do himself in the racing shells Pocock built—something about the deliberate application of strength, the careful coordination of mind and muscle, the sudden unfolding of mystery and beauty.

Nobody who does not believe deeply in himself or herself—in his or her ability to endure hardship and to prevail over adversity—is likely even to attempt something as audacious as competitive rowing at the highest levels. The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it. And yet, at the same time—and this is key—no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.

Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow all this must mesh. That’s the steepest challenge. Even after the right mixture is found, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. It is an exquisite thing when it all comes together in just the right way. The intense bonding and the sense of exhilaration that results from it are what many oarsmen row for, far more than for trophies or accolades. But it takes young men or women of extraordinary character as well as extraordinary physical ability to pull it off.

The wood, Pocock murmured, taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves. About the reasons we were all here. “Sure, I can make a boat,” he said, and then added, quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, “‘But only God can make a tree.’”

The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, to accommodate, he said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood, so long as it was helmed by inner resolve and by principle.

“As a general rule,” he said, “men are in a more receptive mood for pointers when working with familiar teammates.”

What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them.

The boys in the Clipper had been winnowed down by punishing competition, and in the winnowing a kind of common character had issued forth: they were all skilled, they were all tough, they were all fiercely determined, but they were also all good-hearted. Every one of them had come from humble origins or been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up. Each in his own way, they had all learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life, that for all their strength and good looks and youth, forces were at work in the world that were greater than they. The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility—the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole—and humility was the common gateway through which they were able now to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before.

None of them doubted anyone else in the boat. But believing in one another was not really at issue anymore. What was more difficult was being sure about one’s self. The caustic chemicals of fear continued to surge in their brains and in their guts.

“Mr. Brundage,” he began, “has reached his destination, the Utopia of sportsmanship and good-will, where Nazi beer and Jewish blood flow freely—where Hitler-made robots torment and persecute the living dead. . . . For two months the dead will be buried. But with the conclusion of the Olympics in September, their graves will be desecrated . . . and dead men once more will walk the streets of Germany.”

No Olympics before had ever been orchestrated “by a political regime that owes its triumph to a new realization of the possibilities of propaganda, publicity, and pageantry. Staging the Olympics in the past has been in the hands of amateurs. Here the work has been done by professionals, and by the most talented, resourceful, and successful professionals in history.”

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