Great Book. Had I read this as a high school rower, I would’ve been applying to the University of Washington and their rowing team. The book has multiple narratives, but the two main stories are that of Hitler/Nazi Germany as they geared up in the 1930s and rower Joe Rantz.
The author could have picked any of the eight rowers in the ‘36 Olympic boat to serve as the main protagonist, but Joe Rantz’s story is incredible: abandoned by his family (the mean step-mother…) as a teenager, Rantz managed to somehow survive, get invited to the university rowing team, make the varsity boat, and then win Olympic gold in front of Hitler. None of this is really spoiler information; the details of this incredible story that make the book worth reading.
The book also covers The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the New Deal, the second World War. Seattle is now one of the great cities in this country, but in the 1920s and 30s it was consider very backwoods by the rest of the country. A rowing team from Seattle was a real long shot back then.
It was fortuitous timing to have read this durint this year’s Winter Olympics. Some real parallels with today’s events: the Olympics are more than just an atheletic competition, there very real political and historical undertones.
= = = = = Quotes = = = = =
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
but rowing—he understood as well as anyone—was at least as much art as brawn, and a keen intelligence was just as important as brute strength.
The trick would be to find which few of them had the potential for raw power, the nearly superhuman stamina, the indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique. And which of them, coupled improbably with all those other qualities, had the most important one: the ability to disregard his own ambitions, to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.
Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment.
“Nobody ever took time out in a boat race,”
your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any other human endeavor.
Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race—the Olympic standard—takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.
Pound for pound, Olympic oarsmen may take in and process as much oxygen as a thoroughbred racehorse.
It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.
and that by Christmas break most of them would have given up, perhaps to play something less physically and intellectually demanding, like football.
George Yeoman Pocock was all but born with an oar in his hands.
“No one will ask you how long it took to build; they will only ask who built it.”
Conibear—who would come to be called the father of Washington rowing—had become Washington’s coach because nobody else was available to take the job, not because he knew the first thing about rowing.
It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them. —George Yeoman Pocock
it wasn’t a matter of luck at all, that it was just a matter of keeping your eyes open. “The only time you don’t find a four-leaf clover,” he liked to say, “is when you stop looking for one.”
One of the fundamental challenges in rowing is that when any one member of a crew goes into a slump the entire crew goes with him.
But the demands of rowing are such that every man or woman in a racing shell depends on his or her crewmates to perform almost flawlessly with each and every pull of the oar. The movements of each rower are so intimately intertwined, so precisely synchronized with the movements of all the others, that any one rower’s mistake or subpar performance can throw off the tempo of the stroke, the balance of the boat, and ultimately the success of the whole crew. More often than not, it comes down to a lack of concentration on one person’s part.
Because the rest of the boat necessarily goes where the bow goes, any deflection or irregularity in the stroke of the oarsman in the bow seat has the greatest potential to disrupt the course, speed, and stability of the boat.
The four, five, and six seats are often called “the engine room” of the crew, and the rowers who occupy these seats are typically the biggest and strongest in the boat.
The speed of a racing shell is determined primarily by two factors: the power produced by the combined strokes of the oars, and the stroke rate,
A boat with both a very high stroke rate and very powerful strokes will beat a boat that can’t match it on both counts.
You had to master your opponent mentally. When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not—that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown, something that once revealed would make him doubt himself, make him falter just when it counted the most. Like so much in life, crew was partly about confidence, partly about knowing your own heart.
By the second decade of the new century, tens of thousands of fans—as many as 125,000 in 1929—came to Poughkeepsie to watch the annual regatta in person; millions more listened to the radio coverage; and the regatta came to rival the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl, and the World Series as a major national sporting event.
The 1934 regatta was once again shaping up to be a clash of eastern privilege and prestige on the one hand and western sincerity and brawn on the other. In financial terms, it was pretty starkly going to be a clash of old money versus no money at all.
“You will eat no fried meats,” he began abruptly. “You will eat no pastries, but you will eat plenty of vegetables. You will eat good, substantial, wholesome food—the kind of food your mother makes. You will go to bed at ten o’clock and arise punctually at seven o’clock. You will not smoke or drink or chew. And you will follow this regimen all year round, for as long as you row for me. A man cannot abuse his body for six months and then expect to row the other six months. He must be a total abstainer all year. You will not use profane language in the shell house, nor anywhere within my hearing. You will keep at your studies and maintain a high grade point average. You will not disappoint your parents, nor your crewmates. Now let’s row.”
She told Harry to get out of the house, and not to come back until he had a job. Harry headed for Los Angeles. Six months later, he returned with a motorcycle but no job.
“It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can’t waste my energy like that and expect to get ahead. When they left, it took everything I had in me just to survive. Now I have to stay focused. I’ve just gotta take care of it myself.”
George Pocock was already building the best, and doing so by a wide margin. He didn’t just build racing shells. He sculpted them.
Partly, it was because he could not abide the noise that power tools made. Craftsmanship required thought, and thought required a quiet environment.
There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called “swing.” It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others.
Stroke rate is one thing and power is another.
But the faster the boat goes, the harder it is to row well. The enormously complicated sequence of movements, each of which an oarsman must execute with exquisite precision, becomes exponentially more difficult to perform as the stroke rate increases.
Put another way, beautiful and effective rowing often means painful rowing. An unnamed coach is reputed to have said, bluntly, “Rowing is like a beautiful duck. On the surface it is all grace, but underneath the bastard’s paddling like mad!”
The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it.
Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars.
Even if they could, few rowing coaches would simply clone their biggest, strongest, smartest, and most capable rowers. Crew races are not won by clones. They are won by crews, and great crews are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types.
Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow all this must mesh.
“Sure, I can make a boat,” he said, and then added, quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, “‘But only God can make a tree.’”
The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, to accommodate, he said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood, so long as it was helmed by inner resolve and by principle.
He said for him the craft of building a boat was like religion. It wasn’t enough to master the technical details of it. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart. He turned to Joe. “Rowing,” he said, “is like that. And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.
Like most competitive rowers, he was drawn to difficult things. A good challenge had always interested him, appealed to him. That was, in many ways, why he rowed.
When eight very large men are in constant motion in a twenty-four-inch-wide vessel and the wind is blowing and the tide or current is relentlessly trying to push them off course, steering is no small challenge. But it’s the least of what a coxswain must worry about.
In short, a good coxswain is a quarterback, a cheerleader, and a coach all in one.
He suggested that Joe think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined. That’s the way it was with rowing.
And he concluded with a remark that Joe would never forget. “Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.”
Increasing numbers of people in Europe and the United States were beginning to talk again about Germany, as they had during the First World War, when it had generally been seen as a nation of “Huns,” of lawless barbarians. Hitler knew it would be much easier for the West to mobilize against a nation of barbarians than a civilized nation.
The Nazi leadership was now convinced that the upcoming Olympic Games, in August, would provide the perfect opportunity for a masquerade. Germany would present herself to the world as an unusually clean, efficient, modern, technologically savvy, cultured, vigorous, reasonable, and hospitable nation.
Therein lies the secret of successful crews: Their “swing,” that fourth dimension of rowing, which can only be appreciated by an oarsman who has rowed in a swinging crew, where the run is uncanny and the work of propelling the shell a delight. —George Yeoman Pocock
Good thoughts have much to do with good rowing. It isn’t enough for the muscles of a crew to work in unison; their hearts and minds must also be as one. —George Yeoman Pocock
Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing. —George Yeoman Pocock
After the race, the sagest and most ancient among Al Ulbrickson’s peers, old Jim Ten Eyck of Syracuse, finally said flat out what he’d been thinking about the Washington varsity boat for some time: “It’s the greatest eight I ever saw, and I never expect to see another like it.” Coming from a man who had watched crews come and go since 1861, it was quite a statement.
in four years of college rowing, each of them had rowed approximately 4,344 miles, far enough to take him from Seattle to Japan. Along the way, each had taken roughly 469,000 strokes with his oar, all in preparation for only 28 miles of actual collegiate racing.