“Standing there . . . it occured to me that when Hitler watched Joe and the boys fight their way back from the rear of the field to sweep ahead of Italy and Germany seventy-five years ago, he saw, but did not recognize, heralds of his doom. He could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who also shared their essential natures — decent and unassuring, not privileged or favored by any thing in particular, just loyal, committed, and perseverant — would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down” (Brown 368)

If you know me, you know I don’t care about sports.

I really don’t. My brain goes blank as soon as the conversation turns to sports.

Picking up The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for the Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is a weird choice for me. A group in my Dual Credit Composition I class picked this for their book clubs in Fall 2019, and I wanted to read along with them.

For being a book about sports, I enjoyed this one! Part of the reason is that it also zeroes in on the historical context.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics always fascinated me due to its placement within the rise of Hitler in Germany. The famous story that I remember about the 1936 Olympics is Jesse Owens winning four gold medals to the ire of Hitler and the Nazi party. Hitler and his cronies were hell-bent on proving the superiority of what they believed to be the “master race,” which did not include Africans or African Americans.

one of Goebbels’ ministers had proposed an entirely new idea — a potent bit of imagery designed to underscore what the Third Reich saw as its ancestral roots in ancient Greece — a torch relay to carry a flame from Olympia in Greece all the way to Berlin. Meanwhile, Goebbel’s work of eliminating any Jewish or otherwise ‘objectionable’ influence from the cultural life of Germany continued inexorably.

Brown 100

I didn’t realize the USA’s team proved even more victorious against Germany in 1936 with the rowing team from the University of Washington. Like Owens, an African American who dispelled Hitler’s Aryan propaganda, the team’s coxswain, Bobby Moch, heralded from Jewish heritage and played a significant part in its victory.

It was the kind of thing that showed you that a little guy could still make all the difference and it remained you how suddenly events could turn around in this world, for better or for worse.

Brown 11

Another epiphany while reading this book was how popular rowing used to be in the United States. In the same way that we crowd around television sets or in football stands, our grandparents and great grandparents gathered on the banks or around the radio to cheer on their favorite rowing teams.

For grandness and sophistication, nothing could match a world-class rowing team. The sport reeked of classiness. And crew was a good way to force a school, or a city, to get noticed.

Brown 18

There is a passage I use with my younger students for their writer’s notebooks to get them thinking about those moments in our lives when we are “in the zone” — “vibing,” the kids would say. Brown has a beautiful passage where he describes “swing” — a phenomenon that occurs when each team member flows into their task, and the results are otherworldly:

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 an eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of sync with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action — each subtle turning of wrists — must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exaltation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like

Brown 161

Oooooof. I mean . . . that’s just good writing there. I don’t care what a book is about if it has passages like this. I’ll read it!

He would survive, and e would do it on his own

Brown 65

Other significant players include their coaches, Al Ulbrickson and George Pocock. Fierce and determined, it’s because of these men that the team made it to the Olympics.

Every good rowing coach, in his own way, imparts to his men the kind of self-discipline required to achieve the ultimate from mind, heart, and body. Which is why most ex-oarsmen will tell you they learned more fundamentally important lessons in the racing shell than in the classroom.” – George Yeoman Pocock

Brown 39

Pocock was a former rower himself and even built rowboats for his team. Though from England, Pocock became one of the hinges on which the US team’s victory swung on for its achievement. Brown includes quotes from Pocock at the beginning of each chapter. Each selection offers some wisdom about rowing and — indirectly — about life. 

It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you hear perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul. – George Yeoman Pocock


In the end, this book is more about teamwork, perseverance, and resisting authoritarian powers that intend harm. It’s a story that can entrance all of us, whether we like sports or not.

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 more fundamental — the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.

Brown 123

The Washington rowing crew’s story in1936 reminds us how vital connection is in the COVID-era.

There were too many days when they rowed not as crews, but as a boatful of individuals. The more he scolded them for personal technical issues, even as he preached teamship, the more the boys seemed to sink into their own separate and sometimes definite little words

Brown 158

Read this book if you like sports or if you don’t. Read this book if you like history or if you don’t. It’s the story here that matters, and Brown definitely prioritize the story without warping the truth.

You can also learn more about the boys in the boat by watching PBS’s “The Boys of ‘36” or picking up a copy of the young reader’s version of The Boys in the Boat. It has a list of people involved in the story, which helps kids visualize whom they are reading about better. Additionally, it includes photographs, which work great if you are a teacher who wants to work with primary sources (American Studies teacher here).

Here is the question I ask the students after reading the “swing” passage for writer’s notebook: where in your life have you experienced “swing”? What does it feel like? Comment below!

Trigger Warnings: abuse (child, child neglect); antisemitism; war

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1 Comment

  1. Loved this book! Read it several years ago- the adversity some of these boys went through in order just to find the money to attend the university. Spending a summer running a jackhammer on granite, on the end of a rope to make part of Mt. Rushmore – wow – my ears hurt just thinking about it.


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