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‘The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics’

by Daniel James Brown

Viking, 404 pp., $28.95

Few sports carry the aristocratic pedigree of crew. Long-established teams at Yale, Harvard and Princeton are mere upstarts by comparison to teams with even more refined heritage from Oxford and Cambridge. Few of them imagined that a crew from Washington, of all places, could be competitive.

But by 1936, that’s exactly what happened. The University of Washington built a team from kids raised on farms, in logging towns and near shipyards. They blew away their Californian rivals and bested the cream of New England to become the American Olympic Team and won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

In “The Boys on the Boat,” Daniel James Brown tells the astonishing story of the UW’s 1936 eight-oar varsity crew and its rise from obscurity to fame, drawing on interviews with the surviving members of the team and their diaries, journals and photographs. A writer and former writing teacher at Stanford and San Diego, Brown lives outside of Seattle, where one of his elderly neighbors harbored a history Brown never imagined: he was Joe Rantz, one of the members of the iconic UW 1936 crew.

Rantz was perhaps the most unlikely member of the eight. Literally abandoned by his family as a teenager to fend for himself, he enrolled at the UW and paid his way through school working odd jobs and summers in brutal heat on the Grand Coulee dam. The discipline, coordination and sheer physical demands of crew gave him a chance to prove himself. He was not alone. The team was built from lanky young men winnowed from a large field of curious freshmen. Not many lasted long.

Those who did were in for quite a ride. Coached by the stoic Al Ulbrickson, the rowers built muscle, coordination and teamwork into an unbeatable machine. Hovering in the wings was George Yeoman Pocock, an eccentric Englishman who became a legend, building racing shells from his UW workshop for rowing programs across the country.

The young men quickly learned that rowing was synergistic — sheer brawn was not nearly enough to win, nor was synchronization, although both were surely necessary. Only when they perfectly melded trust, determination and optimism did they excel. Ulbrickson continually reshuffled the varsity eight as they grew from awkward freshmen to experienced seniors, seeking the perfect combination.

The individual stories of these young men are almost as compelling as the rise of the team itself. Brown excels at weaving those stories with the larger narrative, all culminating in the 1936 Olympic Games. Few of these young men had ever left Washington state, much less the United States, when they left New York on the steamship Manhattan to represent their country in Berlin.

The final race could not have been more dramatic. With poor placement in bad weather, the UW crew faced daunting disadvantages as the race began. But they had something no one could see, a team that worked so closely together that, when it clicked, they were able to soar beyond their apparent capacity. Hitler himself attended the race with his top lieutenants expecting his Nazi team to take the gold medal in the premier rowing event. He left badly disappointed. For the boys in the boat, when hearing the results announced, “their grimaces of pain turned suddenly to broad white smiles, smiles that decades later would flicker across old newsreels, illuminating the greatest moment of their lives,” Brown writes.

A story this breathtaking demands an equally compelling author, and Brown does not disappoint. The narrative rises inexorably, with the final 50 pages blurring by with white-knuckled suspense as these all-American underdogs pull off the unimaginable.

The 1936 Pocock shell still hangs in the UW crew house. It’s an icon now, revered by modern day crews. But once, not so long ago, it carried eight kids and a coxswain from Northwest farms, orchards and shipyards to an improbable victory in the greatest of all crew races.

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.