One of the oldest organized human competitions is rowing. Yet, it is not something that most Americans watch or think about. Basically the advent of baseball, football, and basketball kind of erased other more traditional team sports.
But there is something very unique and special about rowing. It is simply harder, more grueling, and punishing than other organized sports. And there is something to be said for competitions that suck. Humans are drawn to it.
The harder it is, the more alluring its appeal.
Those individuals that are drawn to the sport of rowing are the highly disciplined, gritty types. They lavish in the delight that is long, painstaking and repetitive work of rowing. And I mean work; it is simply a punishing continuous effort of pain.
There is no wonder that this sport was initially only reserved for those that went to prestigious Ivy League schools. It was considered a privilege to test one’s grit in the perils of rowing.
But those rules were of course meant to be broken.
The story of the”Boy’s in the Boat” is one that breaks the rules. A group castoffs and nobodies thrive in a sport that was not really meant for them.
And yet they prevailed. In the highest sort of winning you can do. Olympic Gold.
They beat their rivals from UC Berkeley, the best of all Ivy Leagues at the time. They competed in a US Championship and came back from a massive deficit to best the rest of America en route to Berlin in 1936.
They went to Germany and dismantled Hitler’s superior race team, despite being handicapped with the sickness of one of their best rowers.
When they began this incredible run, they were just sons of loggers and farmers, mill workers, and factory hands. In fact, the story is partially based on a character named Joe Rantz, and how he was abandoned by his family on two different occasions.
They simply walked out of his life with instructions to survive.
These sons of the white collared won gold despite all of these massive disadvantages. Yet, while I read through the book, I knew that they had many advantages that even Germany’s elite could not match.
Against All Odds: The Road to Olympic Gold
- The ‘boys’ in the boat enjoyed the process. In order to become Olympic Champions, they had to row almost every day and often under grueling circumstances. They took pride in fine tuning their craft. Hour after hour, year after year, they rowed and worked. This is the behind the scenes part that we often do not see of Olympic Champions.
The trick would be to find which few of them had the potential for raw power, the nearly superhuman stamina, the indomitable willpower and the intellectual capacity necessary to mast the details of technique (for rowing)”
- They paid attention to the details. They didn’t eat crappy food. Their technique was constantly being fine tuned. They made continual, small improvements over time. I didn’t note the exact number of times I read it but it seemed like the ‘boy’s broke a record every year that they rowed at the University of Washington. It seemed like they were the best “Freshmen” team to ever have rowed. Then they were that “Sophomore” team that was unstoppable. And ultimately, that Husky team with the potential to win it all. Constant improvement of little details.
- They embraced failure and change. Over the course of their time at the university, they went through all kinds of ups and down, including the back end of the Great Depression. During the course of a season, they embraced the grind that came with the punishing sport on a daily basis. Even at the micro level, over the course of one race, momentum can change at a moments notice, yet the individual rower must still continue to pull with everything they got. Even as they feel the hopelessness that comes with a losing effort. They must continue to pull. They have to keep moving forward because there is no other option.
Read More: The Iron by Henry Rollins
- They cherished the proving ground of competition. Despite all of their gifts and talents and insane amounts of hard work, none of it would have mattered if they didn’t go out and prove themselves over and over again during competition. They embraced this piece of the puzzle. Achievement is often times, the only thing that matters in the end.
- They were a team. Egos can be a champion killer. We see it happen almost every year in professional sports.
… And the ability to disregard his own ambitions to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.”
A group of talented individuals that perform as a team is incredibly powerful. Infinitely more powerful that another group that is more talented and even more gifted physically.
The idea of an integrated team in full ‘swing’ is even more amplified in a sport like competitive rowing. It takes longer and is much harder to get every one on the same page, rowing in unison, for long distances, under diverse weather conditions, in extremely stressful situations.
That was the ultimate advantage of the group of nine American boys from the back country of Washington State. As I visualized the setting in Berlin, I couldn’t help but imagine how much of advantage this must have been for the American team. Other teams, roughly assembled of a country’s mightiest rowers, yet obviously lacking the kind of camaraderie that makes a team great.
The question of their disadvantage now sets in. Were the nine Americans really rowing Against All Odds?
PS- The Boys in the Boat was a very gripping story that had me hooked early on. Purchase a copy of the book here.