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

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

4.4 352
by Daniel James Brown

View All Available Formats & Editions

For readers of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Unbroken, the dramatic story of the American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics

Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team…  See more details below


For readers of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Unbroken, the dramatic story of the American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics

Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled  by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.

Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant. It will appeal to readers of Erik Larson, Timothy Egan, James Bradley, and David Halberstam's The Amateurs.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

The only rowing I have ever done in my life is in a heavy rowboat in the sea, with the goal, occasionally achieved, of getting a fish on my line. Of competitive rowing, I have known absolutely nothing until recently, this despite observing countless singles and crews plying the waters of the Charles River, along which I walk almost every day. Passing between Cambridge and Boston, the river teems with rowers a good part of the year, the most splendid sight of all being the eights sweeping by with their little, brass-voiced coxswains barking from the stern. Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a fine introduction to the sport (the oldest chronicled one, he says). It is a story of the triumph of nobodies from nowhere, punctuated by truly thrilling accounts of contests of strategy, stamina, and might.

I don't think I give too much away in saying that the American rowing eight won the gold at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin and that it did so in the face of dishonorable machinations on the part of the organizers. I will even reveal that the Husky Clipper, the shell the Americans rowed to victory, was christened by its builder with sauerkraut juice. But if the Olympics make up the book's culminating event, its center is occupied by Joe Rantz, an impecunious boy from a troubled family background, twenty-two years old when he went to Berlin. Born in Spokane, Joe was the second son of Harry, a person so inspired by the marvels and promise of technological progress that he married his first wife over the telephone. Harry, however, was not a lucky man: his various business endeavors failed; his wife, Joe's mother, died; and his second wife eventually insisted on Joe's expulsion from the family. For Joe it was a sad beginning to a what became, thanks to his endurance and courage, a happy life.

After high school, young Joe worked as a manual laborer, earning enough to get him part of the way through the first year at the University of Washington in Seattle, a "world of pressed trousers, of briar pipes and cardigan sweaters." His ability to remain in college for the whole year depended on getting a part-time job on the campus, which, in turn, rested on his earning a place on the school's rowing team. It was an uncongenial milieu for one as ragged and unpreppy as Joe, but he endured where dozens of his elegant classmates disappeared once they got a taste of the grueling reality.

A sport of greater prominence than it is today, rowing in the 1930s was even more associated with the well heeled than it is now (which is saying plenty) and, in American rowing, with the East Coast. At the time, Brown observes, "the center of gravity in American collegiate rowing still lay somewhere between Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, and Annapolis." The emergence of strong, winning western crews that began in the 1920s was a shock to eastern sensibilities: California was bad enough, but Washington, with its hick reputation as a a state of lumberjacks and fishermen, was an affront. Be that as it may, in the West, the rivalry between the universities of Washington and California was where the real acrimony lay. California had not only trounced Washington in the recent past; it had represented the United States in the 1932 Olympics.

A fine cast of characters inhabit this tale, among them the coach Al Ulbrickson, "the Dour Dane," taciturn and demanding, a man whose experience with rowing included his having had to row two miles each way to attend high school; the English boatbuilder George Yeoman Pocock (what a name!), whose adoption of western red cedar for the hulls of the shells transformed their construction and conferred upon them unprecedented liveliness and increased speed. He also served as unofficial adviser to the Washington crew, passing on the rowing technique he had learned as a boy from Thames boatmen — a romantic detail that is only one among the many that make this such an enthralling adventure. Then there are the other crewmen, among them the coxswain, Bobby Moch, a small, brainy leader and strategic genius who learned a troubling family secret shortly before going off to Berlin, and the stroke, Don Hume, a master of rhythm possessed of preternatural willpower.

Brown concentrates his attention on Joe's life; the leadership, assembly, and dynamics of the Washington crew; the properties of racing shells; and, of course, the terrific races. I cannot resist giving one sample, in this case from Brown's description of a race, preliminary to the Olympic trials, in which California and Washington competed: "The boys now had open water between them and the California Clipper, and in the last half mile they accelerated in a way that no shell had ever accelerated on Lake Washington. As they flew down the last few hundred yards, their eight taut bodies rocked back and forth like pendulums, in perfect synchronicity. Their white blades flashed above the water like the wings of seabirds flying in formation?. Hundreds of boat whistles shrieked. The locomotive on the observation train wailed. Students on the Chippewa screamed. And a long, sustained roar went up from the tens of thousands standing along Sheridan Beach as?." No, I think I'll leave it right there.

Along the way, Brown intersperses passages on the national and international situation, most of which have a pro forma feel compared to the drama of the main subject. But so what? He is a superb sportswriter, conveying the almost unbearable tension of the races, the particular strengths of character and physique demanded by competitive rowing: physical ability, mastery of technique, and trust in and harmony with one's fellow crew members, the last being the ineffable ingredients that propel the boat into a fourth dimension of grace and speed, elevating crew and vessel into the realm of greatness. As it happens, right around the time of this book's publication, the 2013 University of Washington varsity eights vanquished Harvard to win the Challenge Cup Trophy (for the third year in a row) in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

Read More

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt


In a sport like this—hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every century—well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men can’t see, but extraordinary men do. —George Yeoman Pocock

This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to the modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.

I knew only two things about Joe when I knocked on his daughter Judy’s door that day. I knew that in his midseventies he had single-handedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, then hand-split the rails and cut the posts and installed all 2,224 linear feet of the pasture fence I had just climbed over—a task so herculean I shake my head in wonderment whenever I think about it. And I knew that he had been one of nine young men from the state of Washington—farm boys, fishermen, and loggers—who shocked both the rowing world and Adolf Hitler by winning the gold medal in eight-oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics.

When Judy opened the door and ushered me into her cozy living room, Joe was stretched out in a recliner with his feet up, all six foot three of him. He was wearing a gray sweat suit and bright red, down-filled booties. He had a thin white beard. His skin was sallow, his eyes puffy—results of the congestive heart failure from which he was dying. An oxygen tank stood nearby. A fire was popping and hissing in the woodstove. The walls were covered with old family photos. A glass display case crammed with dolls and porcelain horses and rose-patterned china stood against the far wall. Rain flecked a window that looked out into the woods. Jazz tunes from the thirties and forties were playing quietly on the stereo.

Judy introduced me, and Joe offered me an extraordinarily long, thin hand. Judy had been reading one of my books aloud to Joe, and he wanted to meet me and talk about it. As a young man, he had, by extraordinary coincidence, been a friend of Angus Hay Jr.—the son of a person central to the story of that book. So we talked about that for a while. Then the conversation began to turn to his own life.

His voice was reedy, fragile, and attenuated almost to the breaking point. From time to time he faded into silence. Slowly, though, with cautious prompting from his daughter, he began to spin out some of the threads of his life story. Recalling his childhood and his young adulthood during the Great Depression, he spoke haltingly but resolutely about a series of hardships he had endured and obstacles he had overcome, a tale that, as I sat taking notes, at first surprised and then astonished me.

But it wasn’t until he began to talk about his rowing career at the University of Washington that he started, from time to time, to cry. He talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars, about tactics and technique. He reminisced about long, cold hours on the water under steel-gray skies, about smashing victories and defeats narrowly averted, about traveling to Germany and marching under Hitler’s eyes into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and about his crewmates. None of these recollections brought him to tears, though. It was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements? Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both—it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience—a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

As I was preparing to leave that afternoon, Judy removed Joe’s gold medal from the glass case against the wall and handed it to me. While I was admiring it, she told me that it had vanished years before. The family had searched Joe’s house high and low but had finally given it up as lost. Only many years later, when they were remodeling the house, had they finally found it concealed in some insulating material in the attic. A squirrel had apparently taken a liking to the glimmer of the gold and hidden the medal away in its nest as a personal treasure. As Judy was telling me this, it occurred to me that Joe’s story, like the medal, had been squirreled away out of sight for too long.

I shook Joe’s hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that I’d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, “But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.”

Read More

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A triumph of great writing matched with a magnificent story. Daniel James Brown strokes the keyboard like a master oarsman, blending power and grace to propel readers toward a heart-pounding finish. In Joe Rantz and his crewmates, Brown has rediscovered true American heroes who remind us that pulling together is the surest path to glory.”
- Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Lost in Shangri-La and Frozen in Time

“In 1936 nine working-class American boys burst from their small towns into the international limelight, unexpectedly wiping the smile off Adolph Hitler’s face by beating his vaunted German team to capture the Olympic gold medal.  Daniel James Brown has written a robust, emotional snapshot of an era, a book you will recommend to your best friends.
—James Bradley, author of Flags of our Fathers and Flyboys

“I really can't rave enough about this book.  Daniel James Brown has not only captured the hearts and souls of the University of Washington rowers who raced in the 1936 Olympics, he has conjured up an era of history.  Brown's evocation of Seattle in the Depression years is dazzling, his limning of character, especially the hardscrabble hero Joe Rantz, is novelistic, his narration of the boat races and the sinister-exalted atmosphere of Berlin in 1936 is cinematic. I read the last fifty pages with white knuckles, and the last twenty-five with tears in my eyes. History, sports, human interest, weather, suspense, design, physics, oppression and inspiration — The Boats in the Boat has it all and Brown does full justice to his terrific material.  This is Chariots of Fire with oars.”
—David Laskin, author of The Children's Blizzard  and  The Long Way Home

“A lovingly crafted saga of sweat and idealism that raised goosebumps from the first page. I was enthralled by the story's play of light and shadow, of mortality and immortality, and its multidimensional recreation of the pursuit of excellence. This meditation on human frailty and possibility sneaks up on you until it rushes past with the speed of an eight-oared boat."
—Laurence Bergreen, author of Columbus and Over the Edge of the World

The Boys in the Boat is an exciting blend of history and Olympic sport. I was drawn in as much by the personal stories as I was by the Olympic glory. A must read for anyone looking to be inspired!"
—Luke McGee, USA Rowing Men’s National Team Coach

The Boys in the Boat is not only a great and inspiring true story; it is a fascinating work of history."
—Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea

“A lovingly crafted saga of sweat and idealism that raised goosebumps from the first page. I was enthralled by the story's play of light and shadow, of mortality and immortality, and its multidimensional recreation of the pursuit of excellence. This meditation on human frailty and possibility sneaks up on you until it rushes past with the speed of an eight-oared boat."
-  Laurence Bergreen, author of Columbus and Over the Edge of the World

“For years I’ve stared and wondered about the old wooden boat resting on the top rack of the UW boathouse. I knew the names of the men that rowed it but never really knew who they were. After reading this book, I feel like I got to relive their journey and witness what it was truly like earning a seat in that Pocock shell. The passion and determination showed by Joe and the rest of the boys in the boat are what every rower aspires to. I will never look at that wooden boat the same again.”
- Mary Whipple, Olympic gold medal–winning coxswain, women’s eight-oared crew, 2008 and 2012

“Daniel Brown’s book tells the dramatic story of the crew that set the stage for Seattle emerging as a world-class city. Their lives define the tradition that is still University of Washington rowing today.”
- Bob Ernst, director of rowing, University of Washington

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics 4.4 out of 5 based on 19 ratings. 352 reviews.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
If I told you one of the most propulsive reads you will experience this year is the non-fiction story of eight rowers and one coxswain training to attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, you may not believe me. But you’d need to back up your opinion by reading this book first, and you will thank me for it. Daniel James Brown has done something extraordinary here. We may already know the outcome of that Olympic race, but the pacing is exceptional. Brown juxtaposes descriptions of crew training in Seattle with national races against the IV League in Poughkeepsie; we see developments in a militarizing Germany paired with college competitions in depression-era United States; individual portraits of the “boys” (now dead) are placed alongside cameos of their coaches; he shares details of the early lives of a single oarsman, Joe Rantz, with details of his wife's parallel experiences. The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was the stuff of legend, when Jesse Owens swept four gold medals in field and track, but a Washington crew team won that summer also, against great odds. How that victory took place and how a group of great athletes became great competitors is something Daniel James Brown spent five years trying to articulate. Quotes from George Pocock, crafter of cedar shells, head each chapter, sharing his experience watching individual oarsmen become a team.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a rower familiar with the '36 Olympics, I was drawn to the book out of a general interest; but I have to say it is exceptionally well written in how it puts together the characters and tells a story well beyond the world of crew. This book is going to be a best seller. If you have a chance, pick up a great coffee table book about George Pocock: Ready All Row. It sheds even more light on this central character and his accomplishments.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books, if not the best, I've read this year. High School History teachers should read and recommend this book to their students.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If all stories about rowing were written like Daniel Brown's fabulous multi-level biography, I would read every one of them. This is a wonderful account, told with such detail and precision that I sometimes felt as if I were in this tale. Mr. Brown totally sucked me into his adventure. These young men who rowed for the USA in the 1936 Olympics faced huge obstacles. It was the Depression. Many were dirt-poor. They came from a small (then) and nondescript town of Seattle. They could not have had more difficult problems thrown their way. But by taking every sliver of hope, and mixing in superb craftsmanship (from George Pocock), excellent coaching (Al Ulbrickson), and these nine perfectly attuned young men learning together........the result was perfection. This is a true Team sport. I am not giving away anything by telling you that they DO win Gold at the 1936 Olympics. It is HOW they did it that is so darn exciting. Even knowing the end result does not diminish this bigger than life adventure. This is a must read, period. Many of the old luminaries of American rowing are in this story, the good, the bad, and the legendary, including Hiram Conibear, Tom Bolles, Al Ulbrickson and George Pocock. The story of the Pocock racing shell, which was still the best racing boat in the US when I started rowing, is detailed, along with the life story of George Pocock, his personality, and his contributions to Washington crews. This is an inspirational story, one that will lift you up, and it is wonderful, not only because Brown is a great writer, but because it is true.    
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved the book....Great insight to the athlete as well as the Coach....In additiin to the historical signifigance tgat was not ignored... must read by rowers and their familiy....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A riveting read!  I had no idea of the tough training and total dedication this sport requires of the rowers.  This biography of  Joe Rantz , one of the rowers, told the incredible story of the very tough life situations he had to  overcome from an early age and repeatedly throughout his life.  A very well written book which I highly recommend!  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful story, wonderfully told. Am in my 3rd season rowing as an adult, with a coach who rowed at Washington, so was interested in the history. But was delighted that the book is more about the rowers and the time. Really enjoyed the author's style, voice and details. Will look for more
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Inspirational, motivational - All around well written - Great book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A narrative of the development of the Olympic Gold winning crew of 1938. Excellent information on the sport and its intracacies with the depression years' impact on the country and one of the crew as he developed from college freshman crew to the varsity and then, with the crew, the Olympics. The narrative is narrowly focussed upon the topic at hand. I recommend either experience in the sport or an academic interest in it as a prerequisite. Nicely written.
MinTwinsNY More than 1 year ago
The 1936 Olympics may be best remembered for Jesse Owens winning gold medals, by nine young men from the University of Washington rowing team also had their moment of Olympic history at those games as well. Their story, from the time they were a rag-tag bunch of college freshmen to a polished team representing America in Nazi Germany, is well-documented in this outstanding book by Daniel James Brown. The book is driven by personal stories, especially that of Joe Rentz, a young boy whose father and stepmother abandoned him and his siblings during the Great Depression. Left to fend on his own, Joe was able to keep the family alive and also find a way to the University of Washington, where he was part of a seemingly rag-tag bunch of young men thrown together to form the freshman rowing crew. These young men became a team through hard work, camaraderie, excellent coaching, and a lot of perseverance. The research on this team – everything from the results to the coaches to the lives of the young men – is outstanding. Much of the knowledge came from accounts provided by either the team members or their surviving family members. Painstaking detail is written for some of these stories, such as the courtship of Joe and his future wife Joyce, the conditions the team endured in Poughkeepsie during the regatta championships (Washington became the first school to sweep the three events – varsity, junior varsity and freshman), and the experiences they each shared during their time in Berlin at the Olympics. The events of the time shaped how this team would be viewed at the Olympics, and the author does a good job of writing about the history of that time without getting too deep. The references made to the rise of the Nazis, the Dust Bowl gripping the country and the effects of the Great Depression all are important to the story but do not take away from the central theme – namely the nine young men from the University of Washington rowing team. Every aspect of the book is well researched, well written and told in the proper amount of detail. This was an inspiring tale and a book that kept my interest from beginning to end. An outstanding read that anyone will enjoy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a truly great book. It is filled with rich descriptions. It is truly inspirational. Two thumbs up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting story surrounded by some very tedious chapters.
HPSolon More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the way the author set the stage for the story, talking about what things were like in Seattle and in the country as a result of the depression, as well as how events in Joe's life led to his involvement in rowing. Information about Hitler's Germany and the preparations for the Olympics are deftly woven in as well. You can almost feel the chill of the wet, cold practice days, and smell the cedar as George Pocock works on his racing shells. The team faced obstacles I wouldn't have thought about in their campaign for an Olympic medal. In the end it's is a stellar example of what can happen when people work together - the crew in the boat and all those who helped them in their quest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First off I have never written a many books but have not been this moved in a long time! Don't let subject turn you off..sooo much more to this great book!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Many of the customer reviews call this one of the best, most inspirational books they have ever read. THEY ARE RIGHT!
porchswingreader More than 1 year ago
This is the best book I've read in years. Daniel Brown does an amazing job of telling this story, from the opening interview to the epilogue. It was very difficult putting the book down when I absolutely had to go to sleep or eat or get to work. It was good to learn about the "boys" as well as the coaches and the building and builder of the boats. I'm thankful that this story has come to light. USA! USA! USA!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Skeptical if this book would be worth the read. How do you turn a six minute event into a book worth reading? Brown does, and does it extremely well.
reilly1 More than 1 year ago
Extraordinary book! Reads like a "can't put down" novel. Even when you know what's going to happen! I was rowing with them in the boat. The writing, the story, the characters are all awe inspiring. Don't understand why this book is not  at the top of all lists. Oh wait, It's not about vampires.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I became quite connected to the people in this book and really didn't want to put book down. Loved all the historical tidbits, especially since our family are UW graduates and life residents of Washington state.
NoDak_Coyote More than 1 year ago
A truly exceptional telling of the coming together of 9 young men. An engrossing read that involves in you deeply into the life of one of the main characters, Joe Rantz. I never expected to be so engrossed in a book about, of all things, crew rowing.
Anonymous 10 months ago
A page turner even though you know the ending.
psycsuz 12 months ago
I am a fan of true stories. I didn't think this was a book I was going to like but since it came highly recommended by a friend, I thought I would give it a try. What a surprise!! I LOVED this book. Could not put it down. Besides the enjoyment, I learned a lot about rowing and what it takes to be a crew member. That was a sport I never paid much attention to. The author also researched and interviewed the main character in depth. It was personal, informing and interesting. I highly recommend this book.
Reads-to-live More than 1 year ago
Never would have just picked up this book to read, but a friend recommended it. I trusted her and am so glad I did. Well written. The "boys" come alive and their quest becomes palpable. Will engage you from start to breathless finish.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book vividly describes the personal challenges of the 30's in the USA, the growing power of Nazi Germany while providing a gripping account of competitive rowing.
tannisSJ More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have read in a longtime. The history and the heartwarming story made it a feel good book.