The Northwest tends to be overlooked, as if we are perpetual underdogs the rest of the world can’t see over the mountain peaks and evergreens. It takes a great rumble to remind them we’re still here. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and the rest of the grunge squad did it in the ’90s, and the 12th Man does it now (quite literally) at the Clink. But before all the Doc Martens, flannel, and Skittles, another group of PNW boys caused quite a quake.
At the 1936 Olympic Games, nine boys (eight oarsmen and one coxswain) in a boat from the University of Washington made Hitler look like a fool. Competing against the best crew teams in the world, the UW team, a bunch of rag-tag boys, came from behind to bring home the gold medal for the United States and the city of Seattle.
The Boys in the Boat author and Redmond resident Daniel James Brown stumbled upon the story of the 1936 UW varsity team when his neighbor, Judy Willman, approached him at their HOA meeting and asked him to meet her dad. (Spoiler alert: This turned out to be the best thing to ever happen in the history of HOA meetings, perhaps even the only good thing?) Willman had been reading one of Brown’s earlier books to her ailing father, Joe Rantz.
During Brown’s visit, Rantz was coaxed to share his own story. Rantz had grown up fending for himself during the Depression and had been one of the eight oarsmen to earn a spot on the 1936 gold medal team. Brown asked Rantz if it would be all right to tell his story. Rantz’s one request? That the book be about “the boat” and not just him. “For all I knew it could’ve been Joe and eight jerks in a boat,” Brown said. “I was lucky. The deeper I dug, the better it got. All the guys turned out to be great, and I discovered all these interesting angles to the story.”
Not being a rower himself, Brown turned to the present UW rowing program to better understand the dynamics of rowing and made the choice to put the reader inside the boat. “Watching a crew race from shore is not always the most exciting thing in the world,” Brown said. “Much of the drama takes place inside the boat, and I wanted to let readers experience what the rowers experienced.” To thoroughly document the boys, especially Rantz’s journey, Brown spent the next four and half years immersed in the world Rantz and his crewmates lived through for the narrative nonfiction book.
“We forget how hard it was to grow up during the Depression and to make your way through the world,” Brown said. “For me, the story really is about that generation, these nine guys, who got in a boat and were able to pull together so beautifully. They learned to get big things done. It’s kind of a big metaphor for what that whole generation did.”
Brown thinks the book practically resonates with local readers to see how the City of Seattle reacted when the team almost couldn’t afford the trip to Germany to compete at the Olympics. “The whole city got involved with the success of these guys,” Brown said. “People got out on street corners and started writing checks, and giving $5 here, and 50 cents there, and raised $5,000 in two days in the middle of the Depression to send them to Berlin. It’s like the 12th Man before there was even a Seahawks team.”
The story of the 1936 team’s perseverance and teamwork still fuels the current UW team. “We try to embody the same values — hard work, team first, representing the W — in our program today that the 1936 Huskies portrayed,” current men’s head rowing coach Michael Callahan said. “It’s a great story that demonstrates what Husky crew, and the sport in general, is all about.”
“They learned to get big things done. It’s kind of a big metaphor for what that whole generation did.”
This past year, the 2015 UW varsity boat took home the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship for the fifth time in a row, continuing the legacy of excellence that started all those years ago with a group of boys battling against tyranny abroad and fighting to keep food in their bellies at home among the Cascades and Douglas firs.
The Boys in Boat is available at most bookstores and online at Amazon. Brown has also released an edition of the book for readers age 10 and up.