The Boys In The Boat by Daniel James Brown is the true story of nine young men from the University of Washington and their struggle to qualify for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The boys are the Crew in the sport of rowing.
I have to admit that I knew nothing about this sport before I read this fascinating book. the first thing I learned was that in the 1920s & 1930s this was an immensely popular sport, with thousands of people attending the races. It was far more popular in America than football, and almost as popular as baseball.
The premier even in the sport of rowing is the 9 man shell. This is a long thin delicate vessel rowed by 8 large men and guided by 1 small man. Anyone who reads this book will come away with immense respect for the athletes who choose this incredibly demanding sport.
The one thing I thought about the sport turned out to be wrong. The small man in the boat is the coxswain. I always thought he must have it easy; just sitting there shouting “row-row” while the big men did all the work.
It turns out that the coxswain is, in effect, the captain of the boat and in many ways responsible for the win or loss. The coxswain has to set the pace and there is a complex strategy to a race. Setting a fast pace early in the race can put your boat in the lead temporarily, but the men might burn out early and end up losing the race. However, if you hold back to save the rowers strength you could find yourself not being able to catch up to the other boats later on. All of these decisions fall on the small shoulders of the coxswain, who usually weighs only about 120 pounds.
In addition to their grueling athletic training, these Washington University students had immense challenges to face in their personal lives. This was the middle of the Great Depression, and none of these boys came from wealthy families. They had to work outside jobs during school and all summer long just to be able to afford to go to college. Some of them even had trouble getting enough to eat. And given their athletic training, these boys had to eat a lot.
They were not getting athletic scholarships, and they got no under the table payments for anything. In addition they were true students taking difficult courses in Engineering, pre-Law. and pre-Med. There were no free rides for any of them.
So why did they do it? After all, despite the popularity of the sport, there was no professional version of it. The top ranking members of college crew could not “turn pro” after their college careers. They did this to test them selves and to strive to be the best in the World at a sport as an end in itself. The sense of discipline and teamwork and pride were things that lasted for these boys throughout their entire lives.
At the same time the boys in Washington State were preparing, there was another group preparing in Germany. Hitler was planning to produce the greatest Olympics the World had seen. However, his goal had nothing to do with sportsmanship. Hitler and the Nazi Party were going to use the Olympics as a stage from which they could fool the World into believing that Nazi Germany was not such a bad place after all.
This is a beautifully written and well documented book, which I highly recommend. The author lets us get to know each of the athletes and coaches personally. At the same time he adds many facts about that time period which were new to me. For example one of the impacts of the Great Depression was that there were large packs of wild dogs.
As people moved away from failing farms and businesses they often left their dogs behind. The people could barely find enough food for themselves, much less a dog. The dogs left behind began to revert to the wild and joined up in packs to survive. It is touches like that, which make a reader realize that very few of us in modern America can truly understand just how bad things were in those days.
Despite the physical strain of the sport, the boys in the boat come to develop an almost Zen type of peacefulness when they finally begin to row in perfect unison as one entity. The boat is their escape from the Depression, their family troubles, and their academic pressures. There were times when all of them wished they could just stay in the sanctuary of the boat forever.