This has to be among the best non-fiction books of the year. It weaves two stories seamlessly: the personal saga of Joe Rantz, a rower for the University of Washington; and the unlikely success of the University of Washington eight, which won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The author apparently knew nothing about Rantz or rowing before starting on his book, but he has made himself a master of both.
He tells a compelling story of Joe’s determination to overcome severe poverty and abandonment by his family, first through lonely self-reliance and eventually by learning to trust his teammates in the boat.
Simultaneously, he conveys what it takes to make a 63-foot shell, carrying eight large men and one small coxswain, go through the water in flawless harmony and become the fastest in the world.
In 1936, there was no such thing as a national team, so university boats competed as teams to qualify for the Olympics. Competitive rowing had started in the U.S. a hundred years before and was by that time as popular as pro football is now.
As many as 125,000 people would line the shores for regattas. Many more watched from yachts and launches. The national press covered races in detail, and radio had recently introduced nationwide live coverage.
Also in 1936, Hitler and his teammates Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl were scripting an Olympics which would make the world believe Nazi Germany was not a threat. Goebbels, as master of propaganda, made sure all the gypsies of Berlin were removed from the city, and that all the signs saying “No Jews admitted” were gone.
Riefenstahl installed cameras everywhere, even under water and from the air, so she could produce her classic Nazi propaganda film “Olympia.”
The University of California eight had won the Olympic gold in both 1928 and 1932 and was favored to do it again. But Washington beat them in the trials.
In fact, Penn was second and Cal third. After winning, the University of Washington contingent learned there was no money to send them to Berlin and that Penn would go if Washington didn’t raise $5,000 in a week. With appeals to the small towns and large ones in Washington, they raised the money in two days.
In the Berlin finals, Germany and Italy (surprise!) got the two most favorable lanes, sheltered from the wind. America was assigned the lane farthest from shelter and most exposed to the strong wind.
The race was 2,000 meters, as it is today. Hitler and Goering stood with Goebbels in the grandstand specially constructed for them. After 1,500 meters, the U.S. boat was nearly a full length behind Italy and Germany.
With a surge, the Americans made it neck and neck. The Germans and Italians were surging as well. At the finish, all three shells were so close the oarsmen weren’t sure who had won.
Then the announcer gave their times: United States, 6:25.4; Italy, 6:26; Germany, 6:26.4. One second separated them after 2,000 meters. Hitler immediately left the grandstand, with his Nazi entourage following.
Dick Seaton is a Manhattan lawyer.