Amid all the excitement about Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Usain Bolt, I suspect most Rio Olympics fans are not aware of the gold medal just won by the U.S. women’s eight crew. In fact, they are a dynasty unto themselves, having won eleven straight Olympic and world championships. Not with the same rowers, of course. A changing cast of smart, strong young women (8 wielding oars and 1 coxswain with a megaphone) has made sure the tradition of American dominance in women’s crew continues. The average armchair sports buff, though, is probably not paying attention.
But I’ll bet Daniel James Brown is thrilled. Brown is the author of one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a long time, The Boys in the Boat. Its subtitle: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The “boys” were a hardscrabble team from the University of Washington, who had to overcome many hurdles on their way to Germany. Brown, a Seattle resident, was lucky to stumble upon their story, and to get to know the few surviving teammates. His book is an inspirational story of survival through grit and pluck, set at a perilous moment in world history.
The top Oscar-winner from 1981 was Chariots of Fire, a stirring real-life tale about runners at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Its focus was on two outsiders on the British men’s team—a Jewish immigrant’s son and a devout Scottish Christian—who struggled to find acceptance among their aristocratic teammates, most of whom hailed from Britain’s elite (and snooty) universities. In The Boys in the Boat, there’s something of the same social tension. It’s the Depression era, and the Pacific Northwest young men, the sons of lumberjacks and dairy farmers, are having a tough go just coughing up their school fees. But hard times have honed their desire to win, and a brilliant coach named Al Ulbrickson proves to be a master at shuffling line-ups and making sure these tall, sometimes awkward collegians function as a unit. There’s also a master boatbuilder with the charming name of George Lyman Pocock who sees the poetry of rowing, and is able to impart it to rough-hewn young stalwarts with more practical matters on their minds.
On the road to Berlin, Ulbrickson’s team first had to defeat their arch rivals at the University of California. Then it was on to the east coast, where they felt abashed in the company of well-heeled Ivy Leaguers, for whom rowing was a longstanding tradition. If they were intimidated by American bluebloods, they felt even more so when competing against powerhouse British teams. This was all good practice for their arrival in Berlin, where Hitler and his Nazis was determined to prove Aryan superiority through sport. Brown details the spectacular venues provided by the host nation, as well as the efforts made by Nazi Germany to hide its racist ideology and put out the welcome mat to athletes from all over the world.
Rowing sports were a huge deal in that era, and fans near and far gathered in front of radios to hear the outcome of the men’s eight. The stands were packed with enthusiasts, and Hitler himself sat in the VIP box to cheer his country’s crew team on to victory. But it didn’t happen. Somehow the scrappy Americans overcame all obstacles to eke out a win. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who’d been assigned to document the 1936 Olympics for posterity, captured the race with her cameras. But in her classic 1938 documentary, Olympia, the victory of the American crew had no place.
The Boys in the Boat has been optioned by the Weinstein company for filming, but there are still no concrete details about an upcoming production. I do know a young actor, also a gifted rower, who’d be perfect for a major role. (Josh Pence, I’m looking at YOU!) Meanwhile, we can watch bits of Riefenstahl’s footage on YouTube, as in this little documentary, made to inspire female rowers.