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Resilient Rowers of the 1936 Olympics Essay

“In an age when Americans enjoy dozens of cable sports channels, when professional athletes often command salaries in the tens of millions of dollars…it’s hard to fully appreciate how important the rising prominence of the University of Washington’s crew was to the people of Seattle in 1935” (Brown 173). As seen by this quote, America is a much different place than what it was in the 1930s. The times have changed significantly. In today’s day and age we have it all too good. The world we live in is one of leisure and not nearly as much hard work as there used to be. Back in the early 20th century the people had it pretty rough and dealt with many frightening problems of their generation such as World Wars and the Great Depression. The non‐fiction novel, Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown, takes place in this turbulent time period of US history that started around the 1930s. The book is the story of how the University of Washington’s crew won the 1935 Berlin Olympics.

The main character, Joe Rantz, and his team start off as an inexperienced freshman crew at the university and worked their way to the top amongst many obstacles. The story is one of great heroism and persistence that takes place during the heart of the US’s struggles. The lives of the great Olympic athletes were affected by this time period in several ways. The Great Depression greatly amplified the athlete’s drive to succeed as well as their great sense of patriotism, and the less complicated technology of the time allowed them to invest wholeheartedly in the handcrafted vessel in which they rowed. The book begins in 1933 in Seattle on a gloomy day. It was the fourth year of the Great Depression and at this point it seemed like it would last forever. “Nobody could say when, or if, the hard times would ever end” (Brown 9).

The time period brought on a bleak, depressing, and failing society. Howard Zinn, in his article called Self‐Help in Hard Times, provided a great illustration of what the time was like for people of the US through the quote, “After the crash, the economy was stunned, barely moving. Over five thousand banks closed and huge numbers of businesses, unable to get money, closed too. Those that continued laid off employees and cut the wages of those who remained, again and again. Industrial production fell by 50 percent, and by 1933 perhaps 15 million…were out of work” (Zinn). This description by Howard Zinn really paints a picture of the turmoil that was occurring in the US during the depression. The depression caused people to be afraid of the future because of all the uncertainty that came with it. This was especially true for Joe Rantz. Joe came from an extremely poor family and had been hit hard by the depression.

He knew that if he wanted to rise above the depression and the sad life he lived, he would have to make the cut for the University of Washington crew team. Joe knew all too well that “failing at this rowing business would mean, at best, returning to a small, bleak town on the Olympic Peninsula with nothing ahead of him but the prospect of living alone in a cold, empty, half‐built house” (Brown 13). It was this that motivated Joe and it was this that pushed him to succeed. The Great Depression sparked the fear of an uncertain future into Joe, which is demonstrated by Brown in the quote,”Whether you were a banker or a baker, a homemaker or homeless, it was with you night and day‐‐‐a terrible, unrelenting uncertainty about the future, a feeling that the ground could drop out from under you for good at any moment,” (Brown 9).

This fear affected his life tremendously and is ultimately what caused Joe’s drive to win an Olympic gold medal. As well as serving as a motivator for the crew team, the Great Depression also sparked much patriotism into the lives of not only the rowers, but the whole nation. Coming off of WWI the US still had a strong sense of nationalism amongst its people. Once the depression hit and hard times came around, the people of the United States instead of losing their sense of nationalism, held on to it tighter and believed that America would recover back into the prospering nation it once was. For the crew team of the University of Washington, times were challenging however they were proud to be living in America because, as demonstrated by the following quote, they knew that other nations didn’t have the freedoms that they had: “In a few days, he would be sailing under her on his way to a place where as he understood it, liberty was not a given, where it seemed to be under some kind of assault. The realization that was settling on all the boys settled on Joe” (Brown 289).

This place they were about to sail off to was Germany. Germany at the time didn’t have any of the freedoms that America did and was under the control of Hitler. The quote, “They were now representative of something much larger than themselves—a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together— trust in each other, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another—those were also a part of what America meant to all of them”, (Brown 289) reveals the crew team’s feelings about their great American nation. It shows the true level of patriotism that the crew possessed and their deep understanding and respect for the values of America. These true feelings of patriotism were brought forth by the Great Depression and affected the lives of the Olympic athletes by motivating them even more to win the gold for their nation.

Another effect that the time period had on the lives of the Olympic Athletes was caused by the lack of advanced technology in the row boat industry. The time period in which the story was based was during a time in which many things were still crafted by hand and not by machine. The handcraftsmanship of the era carried over into the rowing industry. George Pocock, an expert boat builder, designed and built the Husky Clipper, the winning Olympic boat. George Pocock’s expertise is illuminated by the quote, “A large part of Pocock’s genius as a boatbuilder was that he managed to excel both as a maker of machines and as an artist” (Brown 136). Due to his expertise, the boat became something more important than it seemed. The 9 crew members feel in love with the boat and really became a part of it. Joe began to develop a true connection to the boat when he heard George Pocock describe the wood in the following way: “The wood taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about underlying grace, about things larger than ourselves. About the reason we were all here” (Brown 214).

The values taught to them through the craftsmanship of the boat aided them in victory and taught them to persevere and push through. Joe Rantz and his eight crew members worked relentlessly to achieve a gold medal at the 1935 Berlin Olympics. By all accounts this was a huge accomplishment because rowing is not only physically demanding but also mentally challenging as seen through the quote from the article entitled Me Time, “On the one hand they (rowers) must possess enormous self‐confidence, strong egos, and titanic willpower. And yet, no other sport demands and rewards complete abandonment of the self” (Crosby).

Many factors influenced their success including a strong desire to escape the desolate state of poverty brought on by the Great Depression, a heightened sense of patriotism, and a great appreciation for their rowing vessel that was meticulously handcrafted. They achieved many successes and experienced failure as well, along the road to Olympic victory. However it was not until the last few hundred meters of the race that Joe felt truly at one with his teammates. Joe finally was able to trust his teammates, which is what he was searching for all along. The true prize of his journey, however, wasn’t really the gold olympic medal. It was the friendships he gained along the way.

Works Cited

Brown, Daniel. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print. Crosby, Josh. “Me Time.” Rowing Magazine Apr. 2014: 61. Web. Zinn, Howard. “Self­Help in Hard Times.” In A People’s History of the United States, 377­406. New York : Harper Collins, 2003.


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