Thursday, December 19, 2013

Brown - Boys in the Boat

Capturing the bonding and development of the 1936 University of Washington 8-man crew team who won the Berlin Olympics, Boys in the Boat not only portrays a fascinating high-water point for sports in a difficult time, but it also analyzes what it takes to be a team, as well as the personal journey that many endure in life on their way to greatness.

My daughter, Darbi, was a rower during her undergraduate study at Carnegie Mellon. We went to a number, although not all, of her regattas, giving me a personal glimpse of the dedication of her team, the discipline, and endurance required by this sport. However, Brown’s description of the 1936 Olympic team moved my appreciation to an entirely different level. Honestly, rowing is perhaps one of the finest models for true transforming leadership that exists. It is a sport that requires absolute personal dedication and striving complemented by an extraordinary team that allows for all members to contribute their best to the collective effort. Any individual attempting to pull beyond his/her weight will upset the balance as quickly as any individual who falls below the potential of his/her fellows. In rowing terminology, the “swing” of the boat is an effortless, powerful, and exhilarating moment when the team is unstoppable.

Although there are 9 members to 8-man shells (adding the coxswain), and each of the members of the 1936 crew team was described in some detail, it is Joe Rantz who is the central figure in Brown’s book. Joe grew up in extremely modest circumstances, spending part of his youth in a mining town and the rest in a rural environment. He was abandoned by his father who, after Joe’s mother died, married another woman who refused to have Joe in the household. Thus, Joe grew up having to fend for himself and believing that he could never trust anyone else to care for him. Fortunately for Joe, rather than allowing neglect to result in his undoing, he pushed back in his striving to make a living and to eventually attend the University of Washington. Even while attending college, he was marginalized and ridiculed because of having to work, wearing thread-bear clothing, and not being able to join in the social experiences that were common to other students.

Joe’s struggle to achieve self-worth drove him to pursue rowing, even when for a period after his first successful year on the team, he was reduced to a less-competitive boat. Over his years on the UW crew team, the coach found 8 additional men of humble background who were able to be selfless enough to perform at their peak while still making sure others could do the same. This within a sport that is sometimes characterized as one of the most elitist of all. All of the Washington rowers who made it to be a part of the 1936 Olympics were disadvantaged by the Great Depression, by family circumstances, or misgivings about themselves. But the growing self-knowledge of crew members, coupled with respect for each other, allowed them to become one of the greatest 8-man rowing teams of all time.

The historical context for the 1936 Olympics was that Hitler was on the rise, and chose to host the Olympics as a way of staging the appearance of a progressive, modern, and tolerant country. Figures such as Goebbels, the propaganda master-mind behind Hitler, were dedicated to creating an image that would convince the world that Germany was something it was not. The Olympic teams from the United States was lucky to go at all, considering a significant boycott move. By attending, they managed to counter the deference to the Third Reich through refusing to dip the American flag during the parade of nations and most of all through their performance as athletes. The final race of the 8-man shells was manipulated by German officials to favor the German and Italian shells but this only increased the resolve of the U.S.A. tem to beat the odds and finish first.

Boys in the Boat is a touching portrayal of very common people who rise to greatness. It captures what aspiration is all about and stands as a reassurance that hard work, humility, and perseverance pay off both in personal accomplishment and in quality of life.

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