UW News

June 2, 2013

New book tells stirring story of UW crew winning Olympic gold

News and Information

The Boys in the Boat
By Daniel James Brown
Published June 4, 2013
Viking Press
, 432 pages
The official launch will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 4, at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E.

It was 1936 and the world was on the verge of war. A young black man from the United States, Jesse Owens, made headlines by defeating vaunted German athletes at the Olympic Games in Berlin in front of Adolf Hitler. Improbably, nine athletes from the University of Washington did the same in a rowing competition that had been dominated by Germany.

The UW team’s exploits in eight-oar rowing are the stirring centerpiece of “The Boys in the Boat,” a new book (to be published June 4) that’s equal parts sports saga and history.

Author Daniel James Brown largely tells the story through the eyes of Joe Rantz, a Western Washington neighbor who was dying of congestive heart failure when he related the amazing tale to Brown.

"The Boys in the Boat" cover.In just getting to the UW, Rantz had to overcome obstacles in life – both physical and emotional – that few could even imagine, let alone survive. At the age of 15, at the dawn of the Great Depression, he stood alone in the rain and watched his father, stepmother and younger siblings drive away, abandoning their farm – and him – on the Olympic Peninsula.

For Rantz, rowing was yet another challenge, but one that let him find a place in the world that was all his.

The story of how he came together with eight other students – Gordon Adam, Chuck Day, Donald Hume, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillan, Roger Morris, John White Jr. and coxswain Robert Moch – reflects a deep camaraderie, born of strong trust and determination.

Brown draws on the boys’ diaries, scrapbooks, journals, photographs and personal memories to weave the tale of how these sons of farmers, loggers, fishermen and shipyard workers found themselves rowing together. They were no strangers to hard physical labor themselves – a few of them, including Rantz, spent summer weeks helping build the mammoth Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

Photo shows UW crew winning the 1936 eight-oar Olympic gold medal.

This photo from the 1936 Olympic Games shows the University of Washington eight-oar boat (top) crossing the finish line just ahead of second-place Italy and third-place Germany.University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UWC0599

During the school year, led by stoic coach Al Ulbrickson, they trained for long hours on Lake Washington in a shell dubbed “Husky Clipper,” designed and built by the legendary George Pocock.

In the dramatic events of 1936, the team faced down archrival California and formidable challengers such as Cornell, Navy and Penn to claim the national title on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

The Husky Clipper hangs in the Conibear Shellhouse.

The George Pocock-built shell Husky Clipper, which the UW eight-oar team rowed to the 1936 national championship and Olympic gold medal, hangs in the dining room of the Conibear Shellhouse on Lake Washington.Vince Stricherz

Two weeks later the team rowed to victory over Cal, Penn and the New York Athletic Club to secure the Olympic berth. Or so it seemed.

But it turned out that the U.S. Olympic Committee could not afford to pay for the team’s trip to Germany and demanded that the UW crew raise $5,000 in a week or else the second-place Penn team would go to the Olympics. Within two days the folks back home had raised the cash to truly lock down the Olympic berth.

Brown seamlessly sets the events in the historic context of the people and places of the Depression and the rise of the Third Reich. There are samples of the sometimes-tense relationship between Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, and renowned German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who went to great lengths to document the Olympic Games as a Nazi showcase.

Riefenstahl captured exciting footage as the Husky Clipper, in the far outside lane, came from behind to defeat Italy and Germany – barely five years before the United States would be at war with those two nations.

German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl recorded the eight-oar race in which the UW team won the Olympic gold medal. It begins at about 1:10 of this video, following the four-oar competition.

The taut narrative in the book’s last 50 pages describes the tension of the eight-oar gold medal race, yet another example of unexpected hardship for the UW team to overcome.

The book, which has been likened to “Seabiscuit” and “Chariots of Fire,” will be launched officially at 6:30 p.m. June 4 at University Book Store, 4326 University Way. The Weinstein Co. has also begun development of a script for a film adaptation.