I’ve taken to these virtual pages often to preach and pontificate on the spirituality, poetry and even the policy significance of college basketball. I’ve argued that there is no other human exercise which better models the values of the Golden Rule or indeed a good society: Where players sublimate their innate and intensely developed talent for the good of the greater community. Where achievement is secured not by individuals performing at optimal levels independently, but rather by acting unselfishly, in concert as a unit. Where the greatest of the greats only earn their iconic status after they learned to surrender their own self-interest for the common good.
And then I read Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat. (Click here to purchase.) I realize now that eight-oar crew may give college hoops a strong race to serve as the true exemplar of shared American values.
In the Boys in the Boat, Brown unwinds the extraordinary story of the University of Washington’s eight-man rowing team (plus a coxswain directing the charges) that ultimately represented the United States in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, hosted with hyper-pomp and Ã¼ber-propoganda by Adolf Hitler. That the book has sprinted to the top of the New York Times‘ bestsellers list becomes understandable to the reader after its first few chapters. The tale is written in the guise of a classic suspense novel, tightly-paced as the subject matter itself, providing the kinds of narrative twists and turns that only sport-as-truer-than-fiction is capable of doing. Protagonists arise from hardscrabble circumstances. Impossible victories are painfully wrenched from the grasp of imminent defeats. Hometown heroes vanquish stand-ins for the world’s greatest evildoers.
Like a dedicated parent sneaking vegetables into a tasty treat, Brown elegantly weaves in tales and lessons of the tumultuous historical era he covers: from the country enduring the Great Depression, to the Dust Bowl’s devastation on America’s heartland, to the rise of Hitler and his pernicious apparatchiks on the eve of the globe’s deadliest conflict.
But it’s sports lovers who will most appreciate The Boys in the Boat. For those of us who’ve never given much thought about crew, it comes as a revelation. My first exposure to the sport was peering out my Boston dorm window to catch annual glimpses of the Head of the Charles regatta. It seemed to be an effete and elite gathering of prep school dilettantes; it’s fitting that the only two Olympic rowers that I could name were the Winklevoss twins: the strapping, over-entitled foils to the geeky Mark Zuckerberg in the Facebook creation story.
Indeed, as Brown explains, the sport of crew originally appeared to be the exclusive birthright of the noble classes in highfalutin British institutions and the blue-blooded elite in their American Ivy League imitators. But the mid-1930s University of Washington squad was part of the sport’s transition to Western U.S. dominance, and the boys in this particular boat came from much tougher circumstances. The rower at the center of the book’s narrative, Joe Rantz, was abandoned as a teenager during the depths of the Depression; he knew his only ticket out of a constant struggle for sustenance was success in the rowing scull.
But unlike most team sports which can offer escape, relief, and pleasure out of mundane or difficult personal travails; with crew, the preparation, practices and even the competition involve intense sacrifice and, often times, acute physical pain. Through Brown’s incisive prose, the reader feels the searing burn of the muscles, the unforgiving frigid whip of the morning winds.
And yet, from a sport that demands so much — that stretches and shreds and breaks down its participants physically to the point of bitter, dehydrated exhaustion — there can emerge great character and virtue. Brown writes of the observant George Pocock, the sport’s most influential boat designer, as well as its poet laureate:
George Pocock learned much about the hearts and souls of young men. He learned to see hope where a boy thought there was no hope, to see skill where skill was obscured by ego or anxiety. He observed the fragility of confidence and the redemptive power of trust. He detected the strength of the gossamer threads of affection that sometimes grew between a pair of young men or among a boatload of them striving honestly to do their best. And he came to understand how those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing — a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy.
It is this spiritual, sometimes sacred interplay among teammates — the essential interdependence among discrete teenagers — that makes this story and this sport so fascinating; and it makes this book so essential for the sports fan. Because a successful crew team must be entirely in sync, there’s no chance for one LeBron-like superstar to play hero: If a rower is churning faster than the rest of his squad, the timing is disturbed, the necessary rhythm is undermined.
Worse, if one member of the squad is slumping, the entire crew slumps with him. In basketball, a star player can have an off night, and his team can pick up for him. As Brown explains “the demands of rowing are such that every man or woman in a racing shell depends on his or her crewmates to perform almost flawlessly with each and every pull of the oar. The movements of each rower are so intimately intertwined, so precisely synchronized with the movements of all the others, than any one rower’s mistake or subpar performance can throw off the tempo of the stroke, the balance of the boat, and ultimately the success of the whole crew.”
By contrast, when the rowing squad achieves the magical connection of a perfect series of strokes, it’s a thing of beauty. To the crew world, it’s called “swing.” Explains Brown:
It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just 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 straighten at once. Each minute action — each subtle turning of wrists — must be mired 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 exultation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.
It’s this poetry in motion from the boys in the UW/USA boat that enchanted and inspired a troubled nation. But more importantly, as Brown subtly illustrates, it was their very example that provided a model for the country that would soon lift itself out of unprecedented distress. Sure, America was born on the backbone of rugged individualism and personal freedom. But it was teamwork and community spirit that brought us out of Depression. And it was a love-your-neighbors philosophy that built up the communal muscle to defeated the worst form of evil the world has ever seen — an evil the had appealed to humanity’s worst individual, selfish qualities: fear, resentment and hatred. No wonder we consider them the Greatest Generation.
When my youngest daughter joined the freshman eight-oar crew team at Haverford College last fall, I was pleased — I’ve always understood the virtues of team sport, and it certainly seemed like great exercise. But only after I picked up The Boys in the Boat to learn more about the sport she had embraced did I understand its greater significance. Perhaps if her generation can apply the communitarian lessons of rowing crew as they assume societal leadership, we can start piloting our country forward again. Perhaps then, we can truly understand that we are all in the same boat, and that we can remember — and embrace — our national’s greatest swing, a time when the whole country rowed as one.