The Boys in the Boat – A Must Read
Without reservation, I highly recommend The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Despite knowing the ending in advance (it is a true story after all), I was utterly captivated and inspired. Daniel James Brown transported me back in time to Seattle during the Depression and to Hitler’s surreal Berlin during the 1936 Olympics. Brown masterfully sets the stage with ALL the odds stacked against Joe Rantz and the University of Washington Crew Team. That is how he got me hooked. Like David Laskin, I “read the last fifty pages with white knuckles, and the last twenty-five with tears in my eyes.”
As an athlete, I love to read about triumph through tribulation, about the story behind the glory, and about the grit and hard work of the individuals who made it happen. I was not the athlete with bounds of God-given raw talent. Where I found results was through hustle and harnessing the power of my mind. I can relate to overcoming obstacles and felt the characters emotions, fought their battles and triumphed with them as they crossed the finish line.
The ultimate takeaways for me are: the importance of struggle, the power of team harmony and mental strength that is required to beat all odds.
Struggle Makes You Stronger
“The very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them,” George Yeoman Pocock (p 53).
The hero of the book, Joe Rantz, not only overcame every obstacle imaginable (from losing his Mother, to intense poverty, to being left to raise himself), but his obstacles never got the best of him. He wasn’t angry at the world and didn’t make excuses. Instead, he always found a way to persevere. He was incredibly scrappy, worked multiple jobs, lived very modestly, and did anything he could to survive. Nothing was below him and he constantly pushed his body to the limit.
His tumultuous upbringing must be why he was drawn to rowing. “Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports. Once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions. It calls upon the limits of human endurance. The coach must therefore impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart and body,” George Yeoman Pocock (p 71).
The University of Washington crew team also faced continuous adversity. They were always the underdog – made up of working-class boys who had poor facilities and a lack of funding. Coach Ulbrickson did not let that stop them. The team knew they had to out work and out smart the other teams. The crew worked for no financial reward, but instead for something greater, because they were a part of something bigger.
“To see a winning crew in action is to witness a perfect harmony in which everything is right… That is the formula for endurance and success: rowing with the heart and head as well as physical strength,” George Yeoman Pocock (page 321).
Just one oar hitting the water out of alignment upsets the team’s rhythm and can cause the team to lose the race. Crewmembers must have complete confidence in each other so they can drive with abandon.
“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 (p 275).
Crews that find their “swing” are able to push harder than humanly possible because they are in perfect harmony with their teammates. There are no “stars” on a rowing crew – all must pull their weight in an unselfish manner. This is what brings exponential results.
What an interesting concept. Society today heralds and glorifies the individual athlete, the superstar. It’s rare to celebrate the team, which is another reason why it’s also rare for teams to find their “swing”, to perform in perfect harmony. A few other examples are the Dream Team US Olympic Basketball team of 1992 and the US Olympic Women’s Soccer team of 1999.
Mental Strength & Humility
“From the first stroke all thoughts of the other crew must be blocked out. Your thoughts must be directed to you and your own boat, always positive, never negative,” George Yeoman Pocock (p 105).
Absolute focus and belief that the team would win was required of every crewmember during every race. To borrow Napoleon Hill’s terminology, this special crew team had a definite chief aim – to win Gold at the Olympics. The goals started off small – make the team, win the race. Once brilliance was discovered in the Freshmen boat, Coach Ulbrickson implanted much bigger singular goal – represent the United States at the 1936 Olympics and bring home the Gold Medal in the 8-man boat.
“Men as fit as you, when your everyday strength is gone, can draw on a mysterious reservoir of power far greater. Then it is that you can reach for the stars. That is the way champions are made,” George Yeoman Pocock (p 343).
The University of Washington Varsity Crew of 1936 pulled off an uncanny number of miracles. Particularly in the Gold Medal race, it was “impossible” for them to win (I won’t spoil it for you). And yet they did win. They unlocked the “mysterious reservoir of power far greater.”
Very few teams have this magic, this flow, and this perfect synchronization. When individual egos are put aside and each member of the team feels like they are the weakest link and therefore does everything in their power to not let their teammates down, teams can “reach for the stars.”
I believe this unique and rare breed of team can also manifest in businesses, organizations and athletics. I hope to one day create and be a part of such a team.
I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. It was as much entertainment and inspiration as it challenged me to work harder and challenge myself more. It also raised questions for me to ask myself:
• What was I put on this earth to do?
• What is my greatness?
• How will I serve?
• What are my gifts?
• Where are my gifts most needed?