Book Review: The Boys in the Boat

My cousin did crew in college after competing in gymnastics for years. I always knew she was tough and that her chosen sports were no joke, but reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown confirmed to me that not only is rowing one of the most sophisticated athletic contests, but also one of the most physically demanding.

The Boys in the Boat recounts the strategic creation of the 1936 American Olympic rowing team under the leadership of Washington University’s tough-as-nails head rowing coach, Al Ulbrickson. This book is a heartwarming tale of how perseverance, character, hard work, inclusive unity, and some raw talent have limitless potential, not only in athletics, but also in politics.

Besides facing the physical battles of rowing and the stiff competition of maintaining their prized positions in the boat, most of the boys on Washington University’s crew team were coming of age during a tumultuous period of American and global history.

Throughout the book, Brown recounts many childhood happenings of team member, Joe Rantz, the narrative primarily focuses on his years at university 1932-1936. As Joe faces a seemingly never-ending list of financial disparities, family hardships, and social inequalities, the narrative weaves in corresponding historical events, particularly those surrounding the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

While Americans were trying to reestablish their economy and livelihoods after the Great Depression, Germany was gearing up to launch one of the most successful and ultimately one of the most devastating political campaigns in human history. In the early 1930s whispers of the sinister nature of the Nazi party were wafting over the Atlantic Ocean, but most Americans had bigger issues at hand. Despite warnings of anti-semitic happenings in Berlin, the International Olympic Committee decided to press on with plans for the 1936 Olympics and American teams began to prepare their athletes for the trials.

The Boys in the Boat makes a great case for the importance (and success) of putting individualistic, personal ambition aside in order to achieve greatness. Joe Rantz and the other boys in the 1936 crew boat understood that their ability to win races hinged on their willingness to put the team goals ahead of personal doubts, pain, struggles, and fears. By doing so, they not only claimed victory on the world stage, but also walked away from the experience with something much more valuable – a familial connection of trust, respect, and love.

“Every man in the boat had absolute confidence in every one of his mates… Why they won cannot be attributed to individuals… Heartfelt cooperation all spring was responsible for the victory.”

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (Penguin Books 2014)

This book might be for you if you also like: the book Unbroken (Hillenbrand 2010), Race (film about Jesse Owens), the Olympics, Eddie the Eagle (film about Michael Edwards), Seattle, boating, any underdog story, the Pacific Northwest, Washington University.

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