Sending Big Waves Into Motion

When my dad and I recorded an episode for The Biblio Files after we both read Friday Night Lights, we discussed the validity of it being a social commentary rather than just a sports book. Dad didn’t agree with this statement the first time I said it a few months before. At that time, he and my sister had laughed at my conclusion. When we discussed on the podcast, though, he finally saw the light.

It was so intuitive to me that Friday Night Lights said more than just what plays the boys were running, what down it was, and how many yards they had to go. But I’ve always felt that way. To me, sports go beyond the competition. This is one reason why I love them so much and have for 28 years. Sports possess a power that exceeds far beyond their initial purpose. They speak volumes about the time period and location in which a particular game is occurring; the relations between the competitors; the importance of teamwork, selflessness, and trust; and the unbelievable things our bodies and hearts can achieve.

Still don’t believe me after reading FNL and my review of it and listening to The Biblio Files episode on it, all three of which I know you’ve done? Then please pick up The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. You surely will see my point after reading it.

This book, which follows a rowing team from the University of Washington in the 1930s, proves that the finer points of sports have thousands of parallels with real life. And just like in real life, sometimes the underdog wins — making victory that much sweeter.

The Boys in the Boat

Every great sports story has a quintessential hero, someone who exemplifies the strength and courage to achieve the unthinkable despite every blocker in his or her way. In The Boys in the Boat, that hero is Joe Rantz, the guy with perhaps the most and the hardest of hardships. Fortunately for readers, he’s also the crew member who Daniel James Brown interviewed for this epic story.

Joe grew up in Washington and faced adversity from an early age when he watched his mother die from lung cancer when he was only four years old. His father remarried a few years later, but Joe’s stepmother, Thula, never liked him and, at multiple points, influenced his father to abandon the young boy. At only 15 and at the beginning of the Great Depression, Thula forced her husband to leave Joe behind in a small Washington town so they and their shared children could start anew in Seattle.

So from a young age, Joe became self-sufficient, strong, and quiet — as well as vulnerable and independent, two things that don’t mesh well in rowing, which he learned when he joined the University of Washington’s rowing team in 1933. In the preceding decades, the school had produced countless successful crew teams, and with the 1936 Olympics around the corner, Coach Al Ulbrickson was eager to find young men to qualify for the Summer Games … in Berlin where the Nazi party was gaining more control every day. Even though the nine boys who would be rowing for the U.S. of A. wouldn’t fully comprehend the immensity of beating Germany at the time, something much larger than their pride was at stake.

Ulbrickson found nine steadfast young men, including Joe Rantz, who continued to fight poverty and self-doubt but who began rowing in near-perfection with his teammates. After winning every competition in the States and then qualifying for the games, Joe — who was then a junior — and his fellow crewman journeyed to Europe for the first time in their lives to face off against the world’s best, most of whom had years of experience on them. Against countless obstacles, they eventually found themselves atop the gold medal podium in the summer of ’36 with Adolf Hitler looking on. They may not have realized it, but they had just won much more than the top athletic prize.

“Each in his own way, they had all learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life, that for all their strength and good looks and youth, forces were at work in the world that were greater than they. The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility …” — The Boys in the Boat

You may notice that this recap is longer than I typically provide, but that’s because there is so much to say about this book’s narrative. If you removed the Olympics, the time period, the major players, and even rowing — which plays a central character — you would be left with a sweeping tale of a young man who overcame the unthinkable. Joe could have a story all on his own, and he’s the perfect vehicle through which to tell the team’s (and in some ways, the whole country’s story). His is so compelling, and you desperately want him to win, which makes his successes all that more fruitful.

Brown, for his part, really sets up how Joe’s life experiences — and others’ — shape who he becomes through impressive foreshadowing, which can be tough to accomplish in nonfiction where the benefit of hindsight can feel forced.

Here’s a seemingly trivial scene where Joe is helping a neighbor, and it ends up exemplifying how Joe’s experiences will come into play later in life.

“Charlie would give a signal, and in unison, [the horses] would squat down on their haunches while he chained them up. He’d give another signal, and the two would rise and pull as if they were one horse, their movements crisply synchronized. And they pulled with all their hearts.” — The Boys in the Boat

Sounds nautically providential, doesn’t it? Brown never has to beckon to it later either; this implicit foreshadowing allows the book to flow effortlessly.

Brown does it outside of Joe’s life too. Take this quote where he describes the beginning of the Grand Coulee Dam project, a ceremony for which the team’s shellmaker, George Pocock, attended. Joe wasn’t there, but it proves Brown’s skill at finding parallels between life and sports and at making a larger point:

“If there was little they could do individually to turn the situation around, perhaps there was something they could do collectively. Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something fundamental — the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.” — The Boys in the Boat

Brown excels at weaving in the minor stories to the overall themes and plot without any one character, including Joe, or the sport being too prominent. If anything, they are symbolic microcosms. For example, a main tenet of the book is that rowing requires more than just physical prowess. More than anything, the author argues, rowing demands that you abandon all doubts of yourself and — most importantly — of others. You must fully trust the other men in your boat so that you can row in sync and become one. Only then will your shell cross that finish line before the others.

How can someone like Joe, who has been abandoned countless times, someone who has learned only he can take care of himself, someone who has been ridiculed for things beyond his control, trust eight other men to carry him? Trust is exactly what rowing and teamwork necessitate. In this book, the beauty doesn’t come from the actual victory; it arrives the minute Joe can finally put full faith into the men next to him.

The life lessons Joe learns are a microcosm for the sport, which can easily represent the larger world. This hits the heart of why sports exceed the “it’s just a game” mindset. The racing shell — or the field, the pitch, the boat the rink, the court, or wherever you play — equates to community trying to achieve a collective goal, which is often greater than the W.

“They were representatives of something much larger than themselves — a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together — trust in one another, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another — those were also part of what America meant to all of them. And right along with a passion for liberty, those were the things they were about to take to Berlin …” — The Boys in the Boat

Somehow Brown delivers the larger picture and meaning while simultaneously writing an intriguing narrative with all the grit and nerves that transform you into an anxious spectator. When the boys were rowing for the gold medal, even though I knew they would win, I still found my heart rate ticking up, my eyebrows raising to my hairline, and my fingers furiously flicking through the pages. With everything they had been through, they just had to win.

These boys had literally faced every obstacle possible. After they qualified, they unfairly had to produce their own funds at the last minute. One of the rowers became seriously ill for their final race. Injustice borne from the inhumanity that hosted the games gave them an unfair starting position under terrible conditions. The boys didn’t even hear the starting gun and got a late start. All of these unfortunate events, though, couldn’t stop these hardworking, rugged, and trustworthy young men from crossing the finish line first.

They define what it means to be an underdog, and the lessons their stories teach, which Brown so eloquently describes, should be taught for decades to come.

That’s the power of sports.

“When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart … ‘A lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.'” — George Pocock in The Boys in the Boat

Although the quality, level of detail, and intensity don’t match the book, PBS did air a documentary with the same title that’s worth a watch, especially to see live footage from the races.

One thought on “Sending Big Waves Into Motion

  1. Pingback: Taste of a Poison Paradise | Big Little Literature

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