'The Boys in the Boat' by Daniel James Brown: Rowing against the odds

Imagine nine young men jammed into a narrow, fragile cedar shell 60 feet in length. Picture the effort of keeping that sleek craft level while everyone is straining into his oar at once. Add a crowd in the tens of thousands emitting a deafening roar. Finally, think of rowing against the best teams in the world under the arrogant gaze of Adolf Hitler in the heart of Nazi Germany.

These are cinematic ingredients, to be sure, and there are many in "The Boys in the Boat," Daniel James Brown's non-fiction account of the team from the University of Washington that won the Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In fact, Brown's history of these events is expected to land in theaters in the not-too-distant future. It's already being compared to "Seabiscuit" and "The Jessie Owens Story."

Brown unfolds this narrative through the experiences of the Depression-era students and their coaches, most prominently the Dickensian life of rower Joe Rantz, who Brown met just before Rantz's death in 2007. In his prologue, Brown says that at their meeting he first heard hints of the incredible struggles the quest for the gold medal entailed.

While some of these "boys" were from middle class families little affected by the De pression, Rantz and others came from families of fishermen, loggers or farmers and embodied the gritty determination of anyone who came from nowhere and made it through college during the 1930s. The story involves great collegiate rowing rivalries, such as between Washington and the University of California-Berkeley.

Prior to World War II, Brown says, crew and its teams were followed closely on sports pages and written about extensively - including not only race stats but the pre-race strategies of the coaches, trash talk and psych games. Championship or great rivalry match-ups could draw as many as 100,000 spectators.

Brown also provides the backdrop of a nation mired in its worst and longest-lasting economic depression and a world marching toward war. Those personal and global events came together in the climatic Gold Medal race in Germany. It occurs amid propaganda minister Joseph Go ebbels' cynical campaign to project a more reasonable side to the brutal Nazi regime, which already had begun persecuting Jews and planning the military conquest of its neighbors.

The visual element of that PR campaign was the cinematography of Leni Rief enstahl. The groundbreaking action camerawork preserved the 1936 Olympic events, including this classic race, in "thrill of victory, agony of defeat" fashion.

Throughout his book, Brown brings to life magnificent rowers and tough, small brilliant coxswains, and legendary coaches like the inscrutable Al Ulb rickson at Washington, Ky., Eb right at California, and Tom Bolles, who coached the Olympic squad as college freshmen. When it blew away its competition on the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., hardly seeming to strain at the oars, the Washington freshmen eight immediately stirred in Ulbrickson the idea of going to the 1936 Olympics and winning.

Over the next two years, much could, and did, intervene to nearly derail that quest - right down to the last few seconds of the last race. The taciturn Ulbrickson had, in fact, relentlessly interchanged rowers from the varsity, junior varsity and freshmen boats, searching for the perfect eight - growing frustrated at times as his best unit continually lost focus and performed terribly - except when a major race was on the line.

Washington also had the benefit during this era of having the great boat-builder - the Shakespeare-quoting George Yeoman Pocock - move to Seattle in 1911. Pocock, who crafted racing shells with his father at Eton in England and came from a long line of British boat-builders, had moved to the Vancouver area and then was lured to Seattle by Ulbrickson's predecessor at Washington.

There, Pocock was eventually acknowledged as the greatest in his field, in a time when all shells were carved from wood, not formed from composite materials.

He was also a great student of rowing technique and, Brown writes, made a suggestion to Ulbrickson that ensured the final makeup of the Washington eight in 1936, resulting in one of history's most powerful and elegantly coordinated crews.

Pocock's quotations about the sport lead each chapter of the book and get at the essence of rowing as a team made up of strong-willed individuals. And at the agony of crew practices, which either mold rowers toward greater endurance and maturity or chase them from the sport for something less akin to basic training in the military.

"The common denominator in all these conditions - whether in the lungs, the muscles or the bones - is overwhelming pain," Brown writes of the experience.

The tremendous demand for oxygen during a race of even six minutes, he says, leads to a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles that can be excruciating.

But all of it is more than worthwhile, Brown says, when a team begins to work as a single, fluid unit. Then there is a near-spiritual side as well. To quote George Pocock: "When you get the rhythm in an eight, it's pure pleasure to be in it. It's not hard work when the rhythm comes - that 'swing' as they call it. I've heard men shriek out with delight when that swing came in an eight; it's a thing they'll never forget as long as they live." "The Boys in the Boat" should greatly expand interest in a sport that has lost much of its prominence to other sports since the 1940s, but has been gaining converts in recent years.

To reach Jim Therrien: jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6247 On Twitter: @BE_therrien


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