Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Boys in the Boat

I’ve been a bit of an Olympics junkie, as it were, for really as long as I can clearly remember the Olympics.  It was probably the summer games in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, that really got me started.  It helped that I was somewhat incapacitated during a significant period of those games by a nasty injury to my knee after deciding that a car ramp would make a real fine bike jump.  It didn ’t, and when the sidewalk and my joints met, my skin disintegrated.  The resultant scab made it difficult to bend my knee, so I sat, luge-style, in the recliner in the living room and watched hours upon hours of Olympics.  I was a fan only a few hours in.  The pageantry was attractive, the glamor was fascinating, but the athletes striving for excellence, along with a little nationalism, is what really intrigued me.  I’ve always enjoyed participating in sports, in large part because of the drive for excellence that they embody and teach.

Book cover.The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans ad Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (ISBN: 978-1-101-62274-2) by Daniel James Brown tells a story in which sports and life worked together to teach just such lessons as young men who made up some of the Greatest Generation strove for excellence in their athletic endeavors and in life, garnering a gold medal along the way.  The story follows the life of Joe Rantz the closest, but the reader also gets fairly well acquainted with his rowing teammates, some of his family, his girlfriend, and his coaches along the way.  They all were the kind of people that made America great — hard workers who were responsible and self-reliant, expecting nothing from others but the best from themselves.  Rantz had an interesting childhood in which his mother died, he spent some time living in a mining camp, his step-mother was the stuff of fairy tales, brutally controlling toward his dad and eventually kicking Rantz out of the house when he was still a young teenager.  Joe fended for himself, living in the house the rest of his family abandoned, working his way through high school and college.  It bordered, in a way, on a tale of survival during his early years.  In college, he tried out for and made the rowing team, showing immense potential as a freshman.  Hard work over the next three years eventually landed him and his teammates in the Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where Hitler was in his heyday.  Rantz and his fellow oarsman from Washington had overcome a lot throughout their lives, many from similar backgrounds to Joe’s, to make it to the Olympics in a sport historically dominated by elites and other from the moneyed class.  In Berlin, they overcame more challenges and the home team to capture gold literally right from underneath Hitler’s nose.

Like most history books, the outcome was never in doubt, yet the book was an engrossing read.  The title describes the quest for gold as epic, but it was, in reality, a small subtext to the story.  The characters themselves were epic.  Joe’s story is unbelievable and beyond worthy of being recorded for a wider audience (in rowing circles it was long the stuff of legend).  Some of what he went through seems superhuman.  It, most definitely, is worthy of emulation.  His willingness to work hard was inspiring throughout the story.  He showed that, if one’s willing to put in the work, there is no situation that cannot be improved upon.  Growing up in mining camps and working at logging jobs in high school without any parents around could’ve served as excuses to not succeed in life, but they didn’t.  Neither did the Great Depression.  Neither did any number of other difficulties that presented themselves in Joe’s life.  There were similar stories all around him.  This made digging deep while competing the nation’s and then the world’s most competitive races that much easier.  The level of hard work, commitment, and self-reliance, along with a large amount of common sense, decency, patriotism, and loyalty are a rare combination these days, but were par for the course coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II.  There was an even greater reserve in these special rowers, one that we would be wise to emulate and that made the book, refreshing in its lack of vulgarities, an excellent read.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

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