Friday, June 21, 2013

"Some beauty which ordinary men can't see"

"In a sport like this – hard work, not much glory... – well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men can't see, but extraordinary men do."
— George Yeoman Pocock

What do you know about the sport of rowing, or "crew" as it is called? All I 'knew' was that it seemed to be a sport for rich kids at snooty East Coast prep schools. And while that's probably not entirely inaccurate, it's also not the whole picture. Most importantly it's not the picture painted by Daniel James Brown in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Before the Olympics became dominated by corporate-sponsored athletes, the gold medal for Crew (the sport of rowing a racing shell) at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was won by a team of students from the University of Washington. They not only beat their West Coast rivals (UC Berkeley) but the elite East Coast teams as well to earn the honor of representing their country. And in a thrilling come-from-behind race they beat prestigious European teams despite an unfair disadvantage. They were not a bunch of over-privileged kids whose parents rolled in the highest levels of society but "the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers." They were mostly kids for whom the Depression had taken a huge toll, and being on a team meant not scholarships but a chance the school might help them find a job.

Brown introduces us to the coach and the whole team, but the heart of his story is one rower who came from especially difficult circumstances. Joe Rantz had known more than his fair share of hardship including the death of his mother, but when his father abandoned him as a teenager he had to quickly learn to fend for himself. Going to the university seemed like a way out of poverty, and through his hard manual labor and scrimping and saving he managed to pay for school one year at a time. Being part of a team, however, required him to trust others more than he dared – more than life had taught him was safe.

Brown is truly a master story-teller as he puts the reader in the middle of the Great Depression with all its uncertainty, inequality, and fear. He also mixes in that other threat looming on the horizon in the 1930s: Hitler and Nazi Germany. Joe and his teammates quickly became people I cared about and I found myself unable to put the book down and cheering each success and sorrowing over each setback. I especially loved the quotes from George Pocock, the wise yet unassuming boat-builder for the team who sees a spiritual side of the sport and the way it can build character through teamwork. I even found myself wishing to slip into a boat and start rowing! This is an inspiring book I highly recommend.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

"It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water... but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them."

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