Daniel Brown’s book tells the story of the University of Washington 1936 rowing eight and their attempt to win the gold medal at the Berlin Olympic Games.
The nine young men - the rowers and the cox - were from ‘dirt poor families’, a situation caused largely by the Depression. Washington University was situated in the, then, small and nondescript town of Seattle and was a very long way, both geographically and metaphorically, from the privileged Ivy League Colleges of the East, with their rowing traditions. When the boys enrolled at the university, none of them had previously rowed anything larger than a dinghy and the vast majority of them went to the rowing ‘trials’ largely because of the possibility of part-time campus employment if they were successful.
For large parts of it, the story revolves around one boy, Joe Rantz, and to a large degree, his story is the central narrative which holds the book together. Joe was abandoned by his father and stepmother while still very young and from his mid-teens was obliged to fend for himself. This is exemplified clearly one summer when he tries to earn enough money to return to university by wielding a jackhammer, hanging from ropes working on the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. It becomes very evident that he was not rowing so much for personal, even team, glory as for a search for self regard which had been shattered and for a place which he could call his home. In rowing and in his crewmates, Joe Rantz found himself and found a family.
There is much made also in the story of the nine individuals coming together as a team. Their watching out for one another, their mutual encouragement, trust and respect all played a major role in their success.
It is also worth saying that the author has crafted a non-fiction book with all the elements that make a great novel - plot, characters, suspense. It is quite a feat, in my opinion, to create suspense in a story where the outcome is already known; but Brown accomplishes it.
This is an inspirational, a ‘feel good’ story; and all the more so because it is true. It enabled me to make a journey in which I wanted to cheer aloud, to laugh, to shed a tear - or at least become misty eyed - as these young men developed the ‘harmony, rhythm and balance’ necessary to not just triumph in Berlin but in all of life.