The Boys in the Boat tells the mesmerizing tale of Joe Rantz and the 1936 Olympic eight-oar crew from the University of Washington. But it is much more than a story of athletic endeavor. It’s about a child abandoned by indifferent parents, Americans’ struggle to survive during the Great Depression, a young man’s love of a young woman, and the amazing physical and psychological demands of rowing. It’s about loss and redemption. It has drama and pathos and moral scope. And it culminates on an extraordinary international stage in Berlin in 1936, with Adolf Hitler looking on.
With incredible attention to detail and poetic insight into the sport of rowing, author Daniel James Brown follows crew member Joe Rantz from his difficult early childhood through to his last days, and along the way paints a vivid portrait of a remarkable boy through his personal quest to find his place in the world. Joe’s story is told in such heartbreaking detail that readers cannot help but root for him as he meets and ultimately overcomes one devastating setback after another.
The Boys in the Boat is also the story of legendary boat designer George Pocock and famed coach Al Ulbrickson, as well as all the boys of the University of Washington’s legendary rowing team, including Roger Morris, Don Hume, and Bobby Moch. Brown shows tremendous respect for the memory of all the individuals, arguably one of the greatest crews of all time, and their underlying determination to be a part of the number-one boat—the one that would go on to face off against the world’s elite for gold in Berlin. Moreover, Brown captures the historical significance of the boys’ efforts by taking readers inside Hitler’s Germany during the Olympic preparations, into Joseph Goebbels’s powerful Ministry of Propaganda, and behind Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras as she captures images for her imposing propaganda films.
A testament to the power of sacrifice, hope, and trust in oneself and others, The Boys in the Boat speaks beautifully to what improbable feats can be accomplished when we look beyond ourselves.
Daniel James Brown is the New York Times–bestselling author of two previous works of nonfiction, including Under a Flaming Sky. He has taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford. He lives near Seattle.
Q. How did you discover the story that became The Boys in the Boat?
A: One day about six years ago, my neighbor, a lady in her midsixties whom I knew only as Judy, came up to me after a homeowners’ association meeting. She said her father, who was in the last weeks of his life and under hospice care at her house, was reading one of my earlier books. He was enjoying it and she wondered if I would come by to meet him. Of course I said yes. A few days later I sat down with her father, Joe Rantz, and after a while the conversation turned first to his experiences growing up during the Great Depression and then to his experiences rowing for a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics.
As I talked with Joe, I noted that tears came readily to his eyes at certain junctures. Men of his generation don’t generally cry easily, so I knew immediately that there was something extraordinary going on. As he unfolded more of his story to me, I began to see that all the elements of a great tale were there—intense competition among individuals, bitter rivalries between schools, a boy left alone in the world, a fiercely demanding coach, a wise mentor, a love interest, even an evil stepmother. But I think what really clinched it for me was the simple fact that the climax to his story played out on an enormously dramatic stage—the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—and it played out under the gaze of Hitler himself. Really, what more could a storyteller ask for?
Q. The Boys in the Boat is an incredible combination of history and the personal heartwarming story of Joe Rantz and the rest of the boys who made up the gold medal boat at the 1936 Olympics, as well as a history of crew in the United States. It’s a lot of areas to cover. How did you do your research?
A: The core of the research into Joe’s personal story was the countless hours I spent with him, and—after he was gone—with his daughter. Judy had spent most of a lifetime listening to stories and collecting materials to document the crew’s accomplishments. Much of the “heart” in the book comes straight from her. Beyond that, though, I had a lot to learn about rowing, about the other boys in the boat, and about the history of the mid-1930s. I read a lot, of course, but I also talked to many rowers and many rowing coaches, particularly at the University of Washington. I went out in the coaching launch on cold mornings. I interviewed dozens of the offspring of the original crew. I pored over hundreds of news accounts from the 1930s on microfilm. I went to Germany and explored every corner of the rowing facilities at Grünau, still largely unchanged since 1936. Then it was a matter of sitting down and distilling thousands of facts and anecdotes into a coherent narrative.
Q. What did you discover in your research that most surprised you?
A: There were quite a few surprises, but I’d say three stand out. The first was the degree of absolute devotion these nine men had for one another, literally to the day the last of them died. Another was the extraordinary physical demands of rowing. There’s nothing else quite like it in sports or in life in terms of sheer endurance and pain. (There’s also nothing else quite like it in terms of the comradeship and teamwork it demands.) And the third surprise was quite different—a big historical revelation for me. I think we all know that the Nazis used the 1936 Olympics as a propaganda tool, but until I did the research I had no idea of the scope of the Nazis’ endeavor to deceive the world. It’s really staggering when you bore down into the details of it. They basically turned all of Berlin into an elaborate movie set to sell a completely fabricated version of reality to the press and the thousands of foreigners who visited the city that summer.
Q. You include a lot of details that seem personal to each character, whether it is Joe Rantz; another one of the boys; Pocock; or many others. Were you able to interview any of them or people close to them? If the boys in the boat were alive today, how do you think they would receive your book?
A: Only Joe and one other crew member (Roger Morris) were alive when I started. I interviewed both, of course. But a great deal of personal information about the others came from letters, diaries, news clippings, scrapbooks, and photos that their families saved. I also interviewed more than a dozen of the children of the nine men. They were in many cases able to give me deep insights into not only what their fathers had done in Berlin, but what kinds of people they had been, both before and after the Olympics. I’ve tried to be as faithful as possible to the spirits of the men as their kids revealed them to me, and, I think, based on the feedback I’ve gotten from them so far, that I’ve got their individual stories “right.” As to whether the boys would approve of the book, my honest guess is that they would. Most of them preferred not to talk a lot about the Olympics during their lives; one of the things that distinguished them was that they were, for the most part, very modest men. But when I asked Joe, in his last days, whether he wanted me to write the book he said yes quite eagerly. Then he added a qualifier—only if it was about “the boat.” By “the boat” he meant the whole crew and the strands of affection that bound them together. That’s what I set out to do, and I think they would all understand the book is a monument not just to what they accomplished, but also to what they became together.
Q. The Boys in the Boat is set during the financial depression of the 1930s, when millions of Americans lost their homes and jobs. Yet, in the midst of this despair, sports provided an avenue of success for athletes and a major distraction for the public at large. Why do you think sports, and the story of the 1936 University of Washington crew in particular, provided a sense of hope and escape for their fellow Americans?
A: I think this story is much like the Seabiscuit story in that regard. These nine boys were ordinary, working-class Americans from the rugged Pacific Northwest. They were the sons of loggers and fishermen and dairy famers. Almost any ordinary American could identify with them, particularly in economic terms. Like everyone else, they were struggling simply to feed and clothe themselves. So in that sense they served as a model—something you could identify with if you were struggling yourself. This perception grew even more acute when they began to compete against the often very wealthy boys at Ivy League schools in the East. And then even more when they began to compete against the aristocratic British boys from Oxford and Cambridge. And most of all, of course, when they competed against the handpicked Nazi oarsmen in Berlin. It’s hard to imagine a starker representation of good and evil brought face-to-face than these nine American kids dressed in ragged old sweatshirts and mismatched shorts racing against regimented blond oarsmen in crisp white uniforms with swastikas on their chests.
Q. Working as a team of nine, how did the group mentality come to shape each individual’s perception of himself outside of the boat?
A: Rowing is unusual in the degree to which it demands that very strong-willed young men and women must lay down their egos and put the needs of the crew ahead of their individual wants and needs. This experience totally redefined Joe Rantz’s view of life, and I think it did the same for many if not all of the boys. To succeed at the level they did, they had to become bonded in a way that is almost impossible to describe except by telling the whole story—indeed, that is what the book attempts to do. I think all nine of them would have told you that the experience defined the way they viewed work and competition and life in general for as long as they lived. They wound up being unusually capable, but also unusually humble men.
Q. There’s an interesting dichotomy between the rowers of the East Coast who came from well-to-do families and were at elite Eastern schools and those members of the University of Washington crew who became the 1936 gold medalists. How do you feel the background of the West Coast boys helped them become the champions they were? Why does this particular team stand out as one of—if not the—best of all time?
A: Certainly because they hailed from the West they felt that they had something to prove, both to the long-entrenched rowing establishment and to the press in the East. That helped them forge their identity. It painted them as underdogs even though in some ways their natural surroundings—plenty of ice-free rowable water all year long—actually probably favored them. Because they were seen as somewhat rustic, their accomplishments attracted all the more attention in the East, and that in turn helped fuel their success and their confidence.
I do think you can make a very good argument that they are the greatest collegiate crew of all time, and I base that on two things in particular. For one, they had to row and win at both very short (two-thousand-meter) and very long (four-mile) distances. There’s nothing like that today, and this crew, both in 1936 (their gold medal year) and in 1937, was simply unbeatable. No one defeated them over that two-year stretch. Second, they were not recruited from all over the world, as today’s crews are. They had no modern erg (rowing) machines or specialized training routines or psychological support. They were just incredibly tough and incredibly good and incredibly fast.
Q. Were you a fan of crew and the Olympics before you starting work on the book? How did your conversations with Joe change your perspective on crew or the Olympics or team sports in general?
A: The only awareness I had of the sport growing up was that in the 1930s my father had been a huge fan of Ky Ebright’s crew at the University of California at Berkeley, where both he and I went to school. Ironically, Ebright turns out to be one of the principal antagonists for Joe and the boys in the boat, as Cal was Washington’s main rival through much of their story. But I had little familiarity with the sport beyond that. In a way, I think that unfamiliarity might have helped me write the book. Because I wanted to make sure I got everything right on a technical level as well as on a psychological level, I immersed myself in rowing lore, interviewed oarsmen and coaches, went out on the water with the freshman crew from the University of Washington, and generally learned everything I could about the sport. I don’t think I’ve ever researched anything so thoroughly in my life.
And I also have to say that while I’ve never participated in team sports much—too short to be an oarsman and too fat to be a coxswain, for instance—the experience of writing this book has really opened my eyes to some of the positives that can come out of team sports. I honestly believe that crew saved Joe’s life, or at least redeemed it and made it worth living. If he had never been on crew I don’t think there’s any doubt but that he would have remained somewhat damaged goods—something of a loner and somewhat dysfunctional—all his life.
Q. How has the sport of rowing changed now that synthetic materials are being used for the boats rather than the handcrafted cedar shells used in the 1936 Olympics?
A: Two things have fundamentally changed, really: The shells have gotten lighter and the rowers in them (both male and female) have gotten much larger. Many oarsmen now weigh more than 200 pounds; in Joe’s day most were 160 to175 pounds. The net result, of course, is that boats go much faster.
That said, there’s no doubt that something beautiful was lost when the last hand-built cedar shells disappeared from crew races. They were really objects of art as well as utilitarian objects. A very large theme in the book is how the craftsmanship of George Pocock, who built the best cedar shells in the world, affected Joe and all the boys in the boat. From him they learned to strive constantly for the ideal and to respect the spiritual side of life.
Q. There are similarities between the time frame in the book and now—a poor economy, disastrous weather wreaking havoc—yet many differences such as a president who was able to push through public works programs that helped lift the economy and enabled the boys to get summer jobs to pay for college. And the president of the 1930s was accessible—the boys rowed up the Hudson to FDR’s house in Hyde Park and got out and knocked on the door and were welcomed in. Do you think the boys would have the same success today?
A: It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, just walking up to the president’s door and knocking? I think it says a lot about how we’ve changed as a country, and for me part of the appeal of a story like this is that it takes us back to a time when we trusted one another a bit more. And that’s actually an important theme in the book. It’s really about trust. The Depression (and later, the war) taught a whole generation of young Americans humility. It taught them that they needed one another. They learned to cooperate, literally to pull together as if they were all in the same boat. And that’s exactly what Joe and the other boys had to do in the boat. So for me, the story is very much a metaphor for what that whole generation managed to do.
Q. What is your favorite part of being able to share this incredible story?
A: I think really it is the satisfaction of seeing the boys’ accomplishments brought to light after all these years. As I say, they were a pretty humble bunch, not much disposed to talk about what they had pulled off. But their kids have held the story close to their hearts all their lives, and I can’t tell you how excited they are to see it coming out now. For Judy, Joe’s daughter, in particular, the book is the realization of a lifelong quest to share her father’s story. She has shed many tears during the time we have worked together, but I think perhaps the sweetest were the tears she shed when I first presented her with an advance reading copy of The Boys in the Boat.