Book Review: Rowing team’s story a compelling read

Reader's CornerDecember 22, 2013 

  • ‘THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: NINE AMERICANS AND THEIR EPIC QUEST FOR GOLD AT THE 1936 BERLIN OLYMPICS’ by Daniel James Brown; Viking/Penguin ($28.95)

The generation that came of age during the years of the Great Depression faced daunting challenges that taught many of its members the value of persistence and resiliency.

That indeed was the case with Joe Rantz, a young man who overcame incredible odds to not only earn an engineering degree from the University of Washington, but also, improbably, to bring home a gold medal from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The story of Rantz and his teammates in the eight-man rowing competition has largely been forgotten, overshadowed by the larger story of that same Olympics — Jesse Owens, the first American to earn four gold medals in track and field. But it is masterfully revived by Daniel James Brown in his recent book, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”

Unlike the elite East Coast rowing teams made up of Ivy League prep school graduates, the University of Washington team consisted of working class boys who attended school full time, worked campus jobs on the side, found back-breaking labor in the summer and learned the ins and outs of rowing in the rain, sleet and hail on the choppy waters of nearby Lake Washington.

Rantz, who rowed in the No. 7 position in the boat just two seats from the coxswain, joined the team as a means of survival. Abandoned at age 15 by his father and stepmother and left to fend for himself, he managed to graduate from high school and earn a spot in University of Washington’s engineering program. But to pay his way, he needed a job.

While rowing didn’t offer any scholarships, the team sport did guarantee a job, so Rantz dedicated himself to one of collegiate athletics’ most demanding competitions. Although not at first selected for the 1936 varsity team, he managed to prove his worth and eventually earn a berth on the Olympic team. In front of high-ranking Nazi officials, including Adolf Hitler, he helped snatch the gold from the German and Italian favorites in a split-second finish that left the 75,000 screaming fans dumbfounded.

In “The Boys in the Boat,” Brown re-creates each race leading up to that final victory in painstaking detail, leaving readers all but feeling the spray in their faces. He also does a masterful job of weaving the narrative of Hitler’s Aryan state with that of the decidedly non-elitist Washington team.

Drawing on Rantz’s first-hand accounts, media stories and participants’ diaries, Brown deftly moves the story back and forth from Joe’s past to his present, and from Seattle to Berlin, as Germany prepares to fool the world on a massive scale under the direction of propaganda master Joseph Goebbels.

The result is a thoroughly captivating and inspiring story of persistence, determination and the triumph of the human spirit.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including a two-part interview with Brown, are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.

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