“The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown
A magnificent story of nine young men who labored valiantly with two great coaches from the University of Washington to win the Olympic Gold Medal in 1936 in Berlin.
It is a story that vividly brings to life the power of trust and teamwork and giving one’s last ounce of effort for a noble cause.
It made me appreciate even more than I had before the values to be gained from great sportsmanship. I came to see as never before how crew like other team sports teaches much of what is most important about life.
It teaches teamwork, for the synchronized effort of the eight crew members and coxswain is fundamental for success. It teaches the importance of practice, practice, practice. Of dedication to technique. It teaches the importance of drawing on the last ounce of one’s energy and courage, past the point of feeling the body could do anymore, or the mind either. As George Yeoman Pocock, the designer of virtually all the winning crew shells of that generation said, “where is the spiritual power of rowing? The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.”
Joe Rantz, who emerges as perhaps the “hero” of the book, though every one of these boys was a hero, discovered the moment that led him to break through was when Pocock told him that he needed to learn how to trust. “Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power working within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes you will feel as if you’ve rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.”
As the “Husky Clipper” (Washington U.’s boat) approached the finish line, author Brown vividly recalls the scene, “Joe realized with startling clarity that there was nothing more he could do to win the race, beyond what he was already doing. Except for one thing. He could finally abandon all doubt, trust absolutely without reservation that he and the boy in front of him and the boys behind him would all do precisely what they needed to do at precisely the instant they needed to do it. He had known that in that instant that there could be no hesitation, no shred of indecision. He had no choice but to throw himself into each stroke as if he were throwing himself off a cliff into a void, with unquestioned faith that the others would be there to save him from catching the whole weight of the shell on his blade. And, he had done it. Over and over, 44 times per minute, he had hurled himself blindly into his future, not just believing but knowing that the other boys would be there for him, all of them, moment by precious moment.”
Trust in the team. Again and again, I have seen it play out. At P&G, at Yale, at Disney.
The team’s coach, Al Ubrickson, said it this way: “Every man in the boat had absolute confidence in every one of his mates. Why they won cannot be attributed to individuals. Heart felt cooperation all spring was responsible for the victory.”
I am reminded of a belief expressed by the legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi. “I don’t necessarily have to like my associates, but as a man I must love them. Love their loyalty; love their teamwork. Love respects the dignity of the individual. Heart power is the strength of a corporation.”
This also took me back to the wonderful words of Marina Keegan, a young Yale valedictorian that tragically died in a car accident driving home with her boyfriend right after her graduation. She used these eloquent words to describe what she termed as “the opposite of loneliness”. This is what she felt when she was with her classmates: “there was just this feeling that there were people, an abundance of people, who were in this together.”
People—in this together—an irreplaceable ingredient not only for success but for happiness.
I loved something else that George Yeoman Pocock said in the book: “Harmony, balance and rhythm. They are the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them, civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he gets out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.”
There was another telling reflection in the book that bears on how I have sometimes felt in my role and probably how other people have felt as well. I refer to Joe Rantz’s belief that “he was the weak link in the crew.” He recognized that he had been added to the boat last and had often struggled to master the technical side of the sport and he, in his view, still tended to row erratically. “But what Joe didn’t know,” Brown writes, “and what he wouldn’t, in fact, fully realize until much later, when he and the other boys were becoming old men, was that every boy in the boat felt exactly the same that summer. Every one of them believed he was simply lucky to be rowing in the boat, and that he didn’t really measure up to the obvious greatness of the other boys, and that he might fail the others at any moment. Every one of them was fiercely determined not to let that happen.”
And they did not let it happen. In the final race of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with Hitler in the stands, “Husky Clipper” passed the finish line 6/10th of a second ahead of the boat from Italy and one second ahead of the German boat. Over the 2,000-meter course and in a race that had taken 6 minutes and 25 seconds—or 385 seconds—the margin between the first and third boat was only 1 second. What testimony to the power of teamwork, preparation and the expenditure of every ounce of effort by every team member. Of such elements are victories gained, in every walk of life.