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

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Overview

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 ...

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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Slate called it "the greatest underdog, Nazi-defeating American Olympic victory you've never heard of." To 1936 newspaper readers, the triumph of the University of Washington's eight-oar crew in the Berlin Olympics was a matter of great national pride. To its youthful team members and coach, this once-in-a- lifetime experience forever clarified their sense of self and group identity. Daniel James Brown's captivating The Boy in the Boat rescues this all too little-known story with interviews and primary resources, including the boys' own diaries, journals, photos, and memories. Perfect for fans of Laura Hillenbrand, Erik Larson, and Timothy Egan.

Publishers Weekly
Doughty rowers heave against hard times and Nazis in this rousing sports adventure. Brown (Under a Flaming Sky) follows the exploits of the University of Washington’s eight-man crew, whose national dynasty culminated in a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown tells it as an all-American story of humble working-class boys squaring off against a series of increasingly odious class and political foes: their West Coast rivals at Berkeley; the East Coast snobs at the Poughkeepsie championship regatta; and ultimately the German team, backed by Goebbels and his sinisterly choreographed Olympic propaganda. The narrative’s affecting center is Joe Rantz, a young every-oarsman who wrestles with the psychic wounds inflicted on him by poverty and abandonment during the Great Depression. For this nautical version of Chariots of Fire, Brown crafts an evocative, cinematic prose (“their white blades flashed above the water like the wings of sea birds flying in formation”) studded with engrossing explanations of rowing technique and strategy, exciting come-from-behind race scenes, and the requisite hymns to “mystic bands of trust and affection” forged on the water. Brown lays on the aura of embattled national aspiration good and thick, but he makes his heroes’ struggle as fascinating as the best Olympic sagas. Photos. Agent: Dorian Karchman, WME. (June 4)
Kirkus Reviews
The long, passionate journey of the University of Washington rowing team to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The nine young Americans (including coxswain Bob Moch) who made up the team in the Husky Clipper that would eventually edge to victory by six-tenths of a second ahead of the Italians in the Olympics emerged from the harsh realities of the Depression, as Brown (The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, 2009, etc.) delineates in this thorough study of the early rowing scene. The journey of one young rower, Joe Rantz, forms the emotional center of the narrative. A tall, strapping country boy who had largely been fending for himself in Sequim, Wash., in 1933, he got a shot as a freshman at making the prestigious crew team at UW, which was led by freshman coach Tom Bolles and head coach Al Ulbrickson. Many strands converge in the narrative, culminating in a rich work of research, from the back story involving the creation of UW's rowing program to the massive planning and implementation of the Berlin Olympics by Hitler's engineer Werner March, specifically the crew venue at the Langer See. The UW team honed its power and finesse in the lead-up seasons by racing against its nemesis, the University of California at Berkeley, as well as in East Coast regattas. Despite the threat of an American boycott, the Berlin Olympics were carefully orchestrated by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl to show the world the terrifying images of Aryan "purity" and Nazi supremacy. Yet for these American boys, it was an amazing dream. A touching, fairly uncomplicated portrayal of rowing legends.
From the Publisher
“For those who like adventure stories straight-up, THE BOYS IN THE BOAT… is this year’s closest approximation of Unbroken….It’s about the University of Washington’s crew team: “Nine working-class boys from the American West who at the 1936 Olympics showed the world what true grit really meant.” —New York Times

“If you imagined a great regatta of books about rowing, then Brown’s BOYS IN THE BOAT certainly makes the final heat….”—Boston Globe

“The astonishing story of the UW’s 1936 eight-oar varsity crew and its rise from obscurity to fame,…The individual stories of these young men are almost as compelling as the rise of the team itself. Brown excels at weaving those stories with the larger narrative, all culminating in the 1936 Olympic Games…A story this breathtaking demands an equally compelling author, and Brown does not disappoint. The narrative rises inexorably, with the final 50 pages blurring by with white-knuckled suspense as these all-American underdogs pull off the unimaginable.”—The Seattle Times

“Cogent history…, and a surprisingly suspenseful tale of triumph.”—USA Today

“This riveting tale of beating the odds (and the Germans) at the 1936 Olympics is a rousing story of American can-do-ism. It’s also a portrait of the nine boys who first rowed together for the University of Washington, and of the one in particular who made the sport his family and his home.” —Parade

“This riveting and inspiring saga evokes that of Seabiscuit…Readers need neither background nor interest in competitive rowing to be captivated by this remarkable and beautifully crafted history. Written with the drama of a compelling novel, it's a quintessentially American story that burnishes the esteem in which we embrace what has come to be known as the Greatest Generation.”—Associated Press

“A stirring tale of nine Depression-era athletes beating the odds and their inner demons to compete at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. You can Google the result and spoil the sport, but that won’t dull the many pleasures in Daniel James Brown’s colorful, highly readable celebration of a grueling collegiate challenge.”—Bloomberg News

“Brown’s book juxtaposes the coming together of the Washington crew team against the Nazis’ preparations for the Games, weaving together a history that feels both intimately personal and weighty in its larger historical implications. This book has already been bought for cinematic development, and it’s easy to see why: When Brown, a Seattle-based nonfiction writer, describes a race, you feel the splash as the oars slice the water, the burning in the young men’s muscles and the incredible drive that propelled these rowers to glory.” —Smithsonian Magazine

   “Those who enjoy reading about Olympic history or amateur or collegiate sports will savor Brown’s superb book…”
Library Journal (Starred)

  “[Brown] offers a vivid picture of the socioeconomic landscape of 1930s America (brutal), the relentlessly demanding effort required of an Olympic-level rower, the exquisite brainpower and materials that go into making a first-rate boat, and the wiles of a coach who somehow found a way to, first beat archrival University of California, then conquer a national field of qualifiers, and finally, defeat the best rowing teams in the world. A book that informs as it inspires.”
Booklist (Starred)

“An evocative, cinematic prose… [Brown] makes his heroes’ struggle as fascinating as the best Olympic sagas.”
Publishers Weekly

“The story deserves a more visible place in history, and Brown has brought it to light in a way that will appeal to readers regardless of their knowledge of our interest in rowing or wooden boats.  It’s a story about universal human values: striving for excellence and the triumph of teamwork.”—WoodenBoat Magazine

“Every sport needs its laureate. With THE BOYS IN THE BOAT, crew has found its voice in Daniel James Brown, who tells a thrilling, heart-thumping tale of a most remarkable band of rowing brothers who upstaged Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics.  Well-told history, packed with suspense and a likable bunch of underdogs at the heart of an improbable triumph.”—Timothy Egan, author of The Worst Hard Time

“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

“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

“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

“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

“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 BOYS 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

“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

Library Journal
In this sweeping saga, Brown (Under a Flaming Sky; The Indifferent Stars Above) vividly relates how, in 1936, nine working-class rowers from the University of Washington captured gold at the Berlin Olympics. Mentored not just by their coach but by legendary boat-builder George Pocock, these athletes overcame the hopelessness common during the Great Depression by learning to trust themselves and one another, and by rowing with grace and power. The crew's camaraderie and unmatched precision surpassed expectations, shocking the sporting world. Brown faithfully conveys rowing's stoic persistence, passion, and pain. He captures how and why this team rowed in flawless harmony. The story's depth comes from the memories that rower Joe Rantz shared with Brown shortly before his death as well as from Brown's interviews with crewmates' friends and family and their archives. In a brief epilog, Brown comments on the rowers' post-Olympic accomplishments. VERDICT Those who enjoy reading about Olympic history or amateur or collegiate sports will savor Brown's superb book, much as they would enjoy David Halberstam's The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal, which examined the 1984 single scull trials.—Jerry P. Miller, Cambridge, MA
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670025817
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 10,742
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

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.”

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

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.

ABOUT DANIEL JAMES BROWN

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.

A CONVERSATION WITH DANIEL JAMES BROWN

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.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Did you know much about rowing before reading The Boys in the Boat? If not, what aspects of the sport surprised you most? If so, did you learn anything about rowing that you didn’t know before? And if you don’t generally follow sports or sports history, what made you want to read this book?
  • Compare how the Olympics were regarded in the 1930s to how they are regarded now. What was so significant about the boys’ win in 1936, right on the dawn of the Second World War? What political significance do the Olympics Games hold today?
  • Thanks to hours of interviews and a wealth of archival information from Joe Rantz, his daughter Judy, and a number of other sources, Daniel James Brown is able to tell Joe’s story in such fine detail that it’s almost as if you are living in the moment with Joe. How did you feel as you were reading the book? What significance does Joe’s unique point of view have for the unfolding of the narrative? And why do you think Joe was willing to discuss his life in such detail with a relative stranger?
  • While The Boys in the Boat focuses on the experiences of Joe Rantz and his teammates, it also tells the much larger story of a whole generation of young men and women during one of the darkest times in American history. What aspects of life in the 1930s struck you most deeply? How do the circumstances of Americans during the Great Depression compare to what America is facing now?
  • Brown mentions throughout the book that only a very special, almost superhuman individual can take on the physical and psychological demands of rowing and become successful at the sport. How did these demands play out in the boys’ academic and personal lives? How did their personal lives influence their approach to the sport?
  • Despite how much time Joe Rantz spent training with the other boys during his first two years at the University of Washington, he didn’t really form close personal relationships with any of them until his third year on the team. Why do you think that was? What factors finally made Joe realize that it did matter who else was in the boat with him (p. 221)?
  • Joe and Joyce maintain a very loving and supportive relationship throughout Joe’s formative years, with Joyce consistently being his foundation, despite Joe’s resistance to relying on her. How did their relationship develop while they were still in college? In what ways did Joyce support Joe emotionally? What about Joyce’s own challenges at home? How do you think her relationship with her parents affected her relationship with Joe?
  • Al Ulbrickson’s leadership style was somewhat severe, to say the least, and at many times, he kept his opinions of the boys and their standings on the team well-guarded. Even with this guardedness, what about him inspired Joe and the boys to work their hardest? What strategies did Ulbrickson use to foster competition and a strong work ethic among them and why?
  • George Pocock and Al Ulbrickson each stand as somewhat mythic figures in The Boys in the Boat; however, they were very different men with very different relationships to the boys. Discuss their differences in leadership style and their roles within the University of Washington’s rowing establishment. What about Pocock enabled him to connect with Joe Rantz on such a personal level?
  • At one point, Pocock pulls Joe aside to tell him “it wasn’t just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to, even if it meant getting his feelings hurt” (p. 235). How do you think this advice affected Joe’s interactions with the other boys? How do you think it might have affected Joe’s relationship to his family, especially after the deaths of Thula Rantz and his friend Charlie MacDonald?
  • What was Al Ulbrickson and Ky Ebright’s relationship to the local and national media? How did they use sportswriters to advance their teams’ goals and how did the sportswriters involve themselves in collegiate competition? Were you surprised at all by the level of involvement, especially that of Royal Brougham? How does it compare to collegiate sports coverage today?
  • When Al Ulbrickson retired in 1959, he mentioned that one of the highlights of his career was “the day in 1936 that he put Joe Rantz in his Olympic boat for the first time, and watched the boat take off” (p. 364). Why do you think that moment was so important for Ulbrickson? What about Joe was so special to him and how did Joe become the element that finally brought the boys of the Husky Clipper together?
  • Later in the book, it is noted “all along Joe Rantz had figured that he was the weak link in the crew” (p. 326), but that he found out much later in life that all the other boys felt the same way. Why do you think that was? And why do you suppose they didn’t reveal this to each other until they were old men?
  • What was your favorite hair-raising moment in The Boys of the Boat? Even knowing the outcome of the 1936 Olympic Games, was there any point where you weren’t sure if Joe and the boys would make it?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 283 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 283 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 21, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    If I told you one of the most propulsive reads you will experi



    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.

    24 out of 26 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2013

    As a rower familiar with the '36 Olympics, I was drawn to the bo

    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.

    17 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2013

    Highly Recommend-A Must Read

    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.

    14 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    If all stories about rowing were written like Daniel Brown's fab

    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.    

    12 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2014

    Love it

    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....

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2013

    A riveting read!  I had no idea of the tough training and total

    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!  

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2013

    A good essay on the sport of rowing.

    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.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2013

    If you row,you'll enjoy this book.

    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.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2013

    Wonderful story, wonderfully told

    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

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2013

    Inspirational, motivational - All around well written - Great bo

    Inspirational, motivational - All around well written - Great book

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 7, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The 1936 Olympics may be best remembered for Jesse Owens winning

    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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    This is a truly great book. It is filled with rich descriptions.

    This is a truly great book. It is filled with rich descriptions. It is truly inspirational. Two thumbs up.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2014

    This book felt like a waste of time

    I liked Paris Wife and Loving Frank, Sophie's World, so appreciate this genre, but this book was slow, uninteresting and I feel the history or science didn't come alive at all. It had no useful theme to extract. I would not recommend this book.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 17, 2014

    Everyone in my book group--except me--loved this book. I got bo

    Everyone in my book group--except me--loved this book. I got bogged down in what seemed to me to be filler details. In style, it reminded me of Devil in the White City, though I thought the former was better written. I found some of the side stories distracting.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2014

    The reviews are right!

    Many of the customer reviews call this one of the best, most inspirational books they have ever read. THEY ARE RIGHT!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 21, 2013

    A truly exceptional telling of the coming together of 9 young me

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2015

    Interesting

    Interesting story surrounded by some very tedious chapters.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 13, 2015

    Difficult to keep reading

    My husband is struggling through this book now. He says it's pretty dull, although he enjoys all the historical references.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 21, 2014

    Boys in the Boat was insightful and inspiring

    I loved Boys in the Boat and I am not a sports enthusiast. But I gained an insight to the rigors of the rowing sport and the team spirit that is required and I also got a different look at the effects the depression had on people. It was inspiring to read how those young men rose above very difficult life situations to achieve their goals and I was proud of the American Olympic team. I am going to recommend this book to my book club.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 12, 2014

    Highly recommend

    A powerfully written, touching, and historic account of the creating of the 1936 Olympic Rowing team. This lives of these men, especially Joe, the main character, was amazing in the struggle they had just to stay in school in the Depression. The poverty and struggles the team overcame to become the Gold Medal winners at the Berlin Olympics was proof that we can overcome such great challenges. I also loved the weaving of the history of Germany woven throughout the story. I went from knowing nothing of rowing, to be becoming a fan that can't wait to see an actual race. Great read, hard to put down, and sad that it is over.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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