The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part III. The Parts That Really Matter 1935
A boat is a sensitive thing, an eight-oared shell, and if it isn’t let go free, it doesn’t work for you.
—George Yeoman Pocock
In an age when Americans enjoy dozens of cable sports channels, when professional athletes often command annual salaries in the tens of millions of dollars, and when the entire nation all but shuts down for a virtual national holiday on Super Bowl Sunday, it’s hard to fully appreciate how important the rising prominence of the University of Washington’s crew was to the people of Seattle in 1935. Seattle was a city that had long been considered, and was sometimes prone to consider itself, a backwater in many regards, and not least in the world of sports. The university’s football team had historically been a winning proposition, with an astonishing accomplishment to its credit—a record sixty-three consecutive games without a defeat between 1907 and 1917. During that streak, under coach Gil Dobie, Washington scored 1,930 points to its opponents’ 118. But it must be noted that Dobie’s adherence to the rules may have been a wee bit lax. On one occasion he was reputed to have fit a pair of his smaller players with iron shoulder pads, an equipment adjustment that gave the fellows a seemingly uncanny ability to take down much bigger men. At any rate, the Washington Sun Dodgers (rebranded the Huskies at the suggestion of the 1922 crew) played almost entirely on the West Coast and had made it to the national stage of the Rose Bowl only twice, once tying Navy and once losing to Alabama.
Seattle baseball had never really made it onto a national stage at all. There had been a succession of professional ball teams in town since May 24, 1890, when the Seattle Reds took on the Spokane Falls Spokanes. In the years that followed, the city had seen baseball teams variously called the Seattles, the Klondikers, the Rainmakers, the Braves, the Giants, the Rainiers, the Siwashes, the Indians, and, at one unfortunate juncture, the Seattle Clamdiggers. But all these were minor league teams that played only in local and regional contests. And baseball in Seattle had recently experienced a major setback—one of many more to come—when the wooden stands at the Indians’ ballpark, Dugdale Park, burned to the ground in July 1932. The team had moved to Civic Field, a high school football stadium. But the field had no grass, was little more than a rectangle of dirt and stones. During and between games, grounds crews scurried about with gunnysacks picking up as many rocks as possible, to keep the players from tripping over them when racing for a fly ball or flaying themselves alive when sliding into a base. It proved to be a hopeless cause and an endless task. One of the high schoolers who played there, Edo Vanni—later the manager of the Rainiers—said of the field, “If a horse got stranded out there, he would have starved to death. It was nothing but rocks.” For decades, baseball fans in Seattle had to choose an eastern team to root for if they wanted a stake in the big leagues.
Seattle sports had once risen briefly to international prominence, in 1917, when the city’s professional hockey team, the Metropolitans, became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup, defeating the Montreal Canadiens. But the Metropolitans ordinarily played only in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, and when the owner of their arena did not renew their lease in 1924, the team folded.
Given this meager sports heritage, the Washington crews’ victories gave Seattleites something they hadn’t had in a long time—something, in fact, that they had never really had. With the sweep in California, recent victories in Poughkeepsie, and now talk even of future victories in the Olympics, any Seattleite could suddenly stick out his chest and crow a bit. He could write to friends and relations back east about it. He could read about it in the Post-Intelligencer in the morning and then enjoy reading about it again in the Seattle Times in the evening. He could talk to the barber about it when getting a haircut and know that the barber cared about it as much as he did. Those boys in their boats were—length by length and victory by victory—suddenly beginning to put Seattle on the map, and they were likely to do more of it in the near future. Everyone in town believed that now, and it pulled them together and made them feel better about themselves in a deeply troubled time.
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If they lingered too long over the front page of the Times or the Post-Intelligencer, though, Seattleites could not avoid seeing harbingers of other troubles to come.
On April 14, the day after the Pacific Coast Regatta on the Oakland Estuary, the dust storms of the past several years were suddenly eclipsed by a single catastrophe that is still remembered in the Plains states as Black Sunday. In only a few hours’ time, cold, dry winds howling out of the north scoured from dry fields more than two times the amount of soil that had been excavated from the Panama Canal and lifted it eight thousand feet into the sky. Across much of five states, late afternoon sunlight gave way to utter darkness. The dust particles the wind carried generated so much static electricity in the air that barbed-wire fences glowed in the midday darkness. Farmers at work in their fields crumpled to their hands and knees and groped aimlessly about, unable to find their way to their own doorsteps. Cars careened off roads and into ditches, where their occupants clutched cloths to their faces, struggled to breathe, gagged, and coughed up dirt. Sometimes they abandoned their cars and staggered up to the houses of strangers and pounded on their front doors, begging for and receiving shelter.
The next day, Kansas City AP bureau chief Ed Stanley inserted the phrase “the dust bowl” into a wire service account of the devastation, and a new term entered the American lexicon. Over the next few months, as the extent of the devastation settled in, the trickle of ragged refugees that Joe Rantz had witnessed heading west the previous summer became a torrent. Within a few years, two and a half million Americans would pull up stakes and head west into an uncertain future—rootless, dispossessed, bereft of the simple comfort and dignity of having a place to call home.
For months, things had been looking up in America. Job offerings had begun to appear again in the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer as they had in hundreds of newspapers across the country; men like Harry Rantz had finally begun to find meaningful work. But the winds of April 14 suddenly blew away the slowly accumulating hopes of millions. Within weeks, the Post-Intelligencer was warning the locals to expect company, and competition for those jobs, soon. “Great Migration Westward About to Begin: Homeseekers Look Upon Northwest as Promised Land,” read a Post-Intelligencer headline on May 4. Employment agencies in Seattle received inquiries about the availability of jobs—any kind of job, no matter how low paying—from as far away as Missouri and Arkansas. Most of the migrants were farmers, and real estate offices were flooded with inquiries about the availability of cheap acreage near Seattle. Eager agents answered the inquiries with assurances that there was plenty of inexpensive land available. But they seldom mentioned that around the Puget Sound acreage generally came with stumps—hundreds of stumps per acre—each of which had to be pulled or dug or dynamited out of the earth; nor did they mention that the underlying soil was glacial till, hard-packed clay interlaced with stones; nor that the climate was cool and gray, not suited for growing the kinds of crops that had long sustained the people of the American Midwest.
At the same time, the drumbeat of ominous headlines emanating from Europe had begun to grow steadily louder and more insistent that spring. Four weeks’ worth of headlines from the Seattle Times alone were reason enough for worry: “Death Penalty for Pacifists Is Decreed as Germany Girds” (April 19); “Nazis Jail Aged Nuns, Monks in New Attack on Christianity” (April 27); “German Move to Build U-Boats Rouses Anxiety in Great Britain” (April 28); “Britain to Match Nazi Planes; Calls on Hitler to Fix Limits” (May 2); “Hitler Warned by Britain Not to Militarize Rhineland Zone” (May 7); “Nazis Have New Weapon: 60-Knot Boat” (May 17); “Hitler Police Jail U.S. Citizen” (May 18). The dark news was difficult to ignore. But not impossible. The vast majority of Americans, in Seattle and elsewhere, did exactly that. The affairs of Europe still seemed a million miles away, and that’s exactly where most people wanted to keep them.
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On the first day of training for Poughkeepsie, Ulbrickson surprised a gaggle of sportswriters at the shell house by announcing that the sophomores weren’t necessarily going to keep their varsity status in Poughkeepsie, despite their win in Oakland. He pointed out that there were older boys in the junior varsity boat with a lot of experience and talent. Some of them deserved a shot at a national varsity championship before they graduated. Insofar as it went, Ulbrickson was probably entirely sincere on that point. He had in fact felt bad about disappointing the older boys in Oakland, especially in light of the fact that they had won the final trials on the estuary after he had broken his word to them. But there was something else. He was well aware that the older boys had utterly dominated their competition in Oakland. The sophomores, on the other hand, had won by the narrowest of margins, and they had caused their coach a good deal of heartburn while he waited for the official results. That hadn’t helped their cause at all.
Joe and the other sophomores couldn’t believe it. They hadn’t just beaten another crew on the estuary; they’d beaten Cal’s varsity, the defending national champions. They’d reached beyond themselves to defeat older and much more experienced boys, the same crew that Ebright would presumably take to Poughkeepsie. Yet suddenly their varsity status was back on the line again. Furious, they resolved to put the JV boys in their place as soon as they got out on the water.
Instead they thoroughly sabotaged themselves and their cause. On May 9, Ulbrickson held another head-to-head contest between the two boats. Riding along in Ulbrickson’s launch was an important guest: J. Lyman Bingham of the Amateur Athletic Union, a close associate of Avery Brundage, the president of both the AAU and the American Olympic Committee. When Ulbrickson shouted the start command through his megaphone—“Ready all … Row!”—the JV boat, with Bobby Moch in the stern, pulled away from the sophomores promptly, easily, and decisively. Ulbrickson gunned the motor on the launch, ran the two boats down, and bellowed, “Way enough!” He lined them up again, and called another start. Again, the JV pulled away decisively. Bingham turned to Ulbrickson and asked, dryly, “Which did you say was the varsity? Maybe I’m watching the wrong crew.” Ulbrickson was flummoxed.
Over the next several weeks Ulbrickson raced the two boats against each other again and again. Occasionally the sophomores won, but usually they lost. They rowed well when left on their own, but the moment they got a glimpse of the older boys they fell apart completely. Months of taunting had gotten under their skins.
In April Ulbrickson had all but crowed to both national wire services that this all-sophomore crew was great—“potentially the greatest crew I have coached,” he’d said, in front of the whole world. Now they seemed bent on making a fool of him. He marched them into his office, closed the door, and read them the riot act. “If you cannot get to doing business, I will break up the combination,” he growled. Ulbrickson hated to even say it. He still had not forgotten the stunning manner in which the sophomores had won the freshman title in Poughkeepsie the year before. Nor had anybody else. Almost every press account that mentioned them still harkened back to that moment in New York when their boat had pulled away from the field as if propelled by young gods rather than by young men. But Ulbrickson knew that, in the end, it wasn’t gods but young men who had to win crew races, and, unlike gods, young men were fallible. It was his job to find their failings and remedy them if he could and to replace them if he couldn’t.
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Rowing is, in a number of ways, a sport of fundamental paradoxes. For one thing, an eight-oared racing shell—powered by unusually large and physically powerful men or women—is commanded, controlled, and directed by the smallest and least powerful person in the boat. The coxswain (nowadays often a female even in an otherwise male crew) must have the force of character to look men or women twice his or her size in the face, bark orders at them, and be confident that the leviathans will respond instantly and unquestioningly to those orders. It is perhaps the most incongruous relationship in sports.
Another paradox lies in the physics of the sport. The object of the endeavor is, of course, to make the boat move through the water as quickly as possible. But the faster the boat goes, the harder it is to row well. The enormously complicated sequence of movements, each of which an oarsman must execute with exquisite precision, becomes exponentially more difficult to perform as the stroke rate increases. Rowing at a beat of thirty-six is vastly more challenging than rowing at a beat of twenty-six. As the tempo accelerates, the penalty of a miscue—an oar touching the water a fraction of a second too early or too late, for instance—becomes ever more severe, the opportunity for disaster ever greater. At the same time, the exertion required to maintain a high rate makes the physical pain all the more devastating and therefore the likelihood of a miscue greater. In this sense, speed is both the rower’s ultimate goal and also his greatest foe. Put another way, beautiful and effective rowing often means painful rowing. An unnamed coach is reputed to have said, bluntly, “Rowing is like a beautiful duck. On the surface it is all grace, but underneath the bastard’s paddling like mad!”
But the greatest paradox of the sport has to do with the psychological makeup of the people who pull the oars. Great oarsmen and oarswomen are necessarily made of conflicting stuff—of oil and water, fire and earth. On the one hand, they must possess enormous self-confidence, strong egos, and titanic willpower. They must be almost immune to frustration. Nobody who does not believe deeply in himself or herself—in his or her ability to endure hardship and to prevail over adversity—is likely even to attempt something as audacious as competitive rowing at the highest levels. The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it. And yet, at the same time—and this is key—no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.
The psychology is complex. Even as rowers must subsume their often fierce sense of independence and self-reliance, at the same time they must hold true to their individuality, their unique capabilities as oarsmen or oarswomen or, for that matter, as human beings. Even if they could, few rowing coaches would simply clone their biggest, strongest, smartest, and most capable rowers. Crew races are not won by clones. They are won by crews, and great crews are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types. In physical terms, for instance, one rower’s arms might be longer than another’s, but the latter might have a stronger back than the former. Neither is necessarily a better or more valuable oarsman than the other; both the long arms and the strong back are assets to the boat. But if they are to row well together, each of these oarsmen must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other. Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat—the shorter-armed man reaching a little farther, the longer-armed man foreshortening his reach just a bit—so that both men’s oars remain parallel and both blades enter and exit the water at precisely the same moment. This highly refined coordination and cooperation must be multiplied out across eight individuals of varying statures and physiques to make the most of each individual’s strengths. Only in this way can the capabilities that come with diversity—lighter, more technical rowers in the bow and stronger, heavier pullers in the middle of the boat, for instance—be turned to advantage rather than disadvantage.
And capitalizing on diversity is perhaps even more important when it comes to the characters of the oarsmen. A crew composed entirely of eight amped-up, overtly aggressive oarsmen will often degenerate into a dysfunctional brawl in a boat or exhaust itself in the first leg of a long race. Similarly, a boatload of quiet but strong introverts may never find the common core of fiery resolve that causes the boat to explode past its competitors when all seems lost. Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow all this must mesh. That’s the steepest challenge. Even after the right mixture is found, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. It is an exquisite thing when it all comes together in just the right way. The intense bonding and the sense of exhilaration that results from it are what many oarsmen row for, far more than for trophies or accolades. But it takes young men or women of extraordinary character as well as extraordinary physical ability to pull it off.
That’s what Al Ulbrickson believed he had seen in Washington’s sophomore boat in Poughkeepsie the previous June. They had become that perfect thing that all crew coaches seek. He remained almost desperately reluctant now to tear the fabric of what held them together then, but the boys seemed to be leaving him no choice. They seemed to have come unraveled all on their own.
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On May 22 he tested both boats again, rowing two miles at a racing beat. The older boys won by a length. The next day he tried them at three miles. The older boys turned in an impressive 15:53, a full 8 seconds faster than the sophomores. Finally, Ulbrickson told the reporters waiting on the ramp what they’d been expecting to hear for weeks now. Barring some kind of miracle, the older boys would race as the varsity crew at Poughkeepsie; the sophomores would almost certainly be demoted to junior varsity status, despite winning in California. But he added that the sophomores would continue to row together. He’d keep an open mind, Ulbrickson said, and see how both boats performed on the Hudson before the regatta. It was clear to everyone, though, including Joe and his dejected crewmates, that his mind was all but made up.
Seattle’s sportswriters weren’t at all sure that it was the correct decision. The Post-Intelligencer’s Royal Brougham had been loudly backing the cause of the sophomores for months, despite their recent sloppiness. George Varnell of the Seattle Times had watched the last few trials closely, and he’d noted something that he wondered if Ulbrickson had picked up on. In the two-mile and the three-mile trials, the sophomores had gotten off the line badly, flailing at the water inefficiently, as if overexcited and flustered, and letting the older boys get out ahead of them. But by the end of the first mile, they seemed to row as well as the older boys. What’s more, in the three-mile trials the older boys had begun to look decidedly ragged by the time they entered the last mile. Clarence Dirks, a writer for the Post-Intelligencer, had already noticed the same thing. The sophomores seemed to get smoother with every pull of the oar, and they had been closing fast at the end of that third mile. The varsity course at Poughkeepsie was four miles long.
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The trip to Poughkeepsie was not the boisterous and carefree jaunt of the year before. The weather was hot all the way across the country, the train stuffy and uncomfortable. Al Ulbrickson was on edge. Following the triple victories in California, he had taken to telling Seattle that he would sweep the regatta in Poughkeepsie this year, winning all three events. In response the excited citizenry had shelled out precious nickels and quarters and dollars, raising an astonishing twelve thousand dollars to send the crews east. Ulbrickson figured he needed to repay the debt by making good on his word.
The tension between the sophomores and the older boys was palpable. To the extent that it was possible, they tried to stay out of each other’s way, but the train was a confining environment and it was a challenge for both groups all the way east. Day after stifling day, the coaches and crews sat in small, almost sullen groups, playing cards, reading pulp magazines, shooting the bull, choosing whom they went to the dining car with and whom they didn’t. Joe and Shorty Hunt and Roger Morris kept largely to themselves in one corner of a coach. There was no singing this time; Joe had left his guitar at home.
Five days later, they arrived in Poughkeepsie. When they stepped off the train, on a Sunday morning, they were all relieved to find themselves in the midst of a cool, refreshing summer rainstorm rather than the sticky, oppressive heat they had been anticipating. As Pocock issued anxious instructions, they gingerly unloaded the shells from the baggage car. A large construction crane lifted the coaching launch from a flatcar and placed it gently in the Hudson. Then the boys began to unload the dozens of milk cans they had brought along. Each contained ten gallons of fresh, clear, sweet Northwest water. They would row on the Hudson’s water. They might even shower in it. But they weren’t about to drink it again.
Reporters pressed around Ulbrickson as he detrained. He still hadn’t officially announced his varsity boat assignments, but he was frank: “The sophomore crew has been a deep disappointment to me.” He went on to elaborate: “We can’t figure out what happened to them… . They began losing their punch a while before the California race … unless they come back again they’ll row here as the junior varsity.” The eastern sportswriters were flabbergasted. They could not believe that Ulbrickson would even consider demoting the boys whom they had seen with their own eyes sweeping to victory so easily a year ago, boys who had gone on to defeat the California varsity just two months ago.
The next day the Husky crews performed a time-honored Poughkeepsie ritual and visited each of their rivals’ shell houses to pay grudging respect to their competitors before taking to the river. At each stop Ulbrickson had to explain, all over again, to his coaching counterpart that, yes, indeed, he planned to send the sophomores off in the junior varsity boat. The coaches were as incredulous as the reporters had been. Venerable old Jim Ten Eyck of Syracuse, now eighty-three years old, shook his gray head and said he didn’t believe Ulbrickson would really do it, that in his opinion it was a ruse, that on June 18 the sophomores would go off in the varsity boat. After Ulbrickson and his boys left, Ten Eyck shook his head again and said, “Ulbrickson must have two great boats if he can do that.”
The sophomore boat was not now, in fact, quite composed entirely of sophomores. Ulbrickson had swapped a senior, Wink Winslow, for George Morry, as coxswain, to capitalize on Winslow’s greater experience with river rowing. Other than that, though, it was the crew that had swept to victory here so effortlessly a year before.
By the time they got to rowing, things were tough out on the water. It was still rainy, and a cold, stiff wind was whipping downstream. The river was a heaving mass of rollers, the water dark and oily. These were exactly the kinds of conditions that the Washington boys most dreaded, not because of the rain or the wind, with which they were better acquainted than most, but because of the peculiar sideways motion of the river water when wind-driven waves interacted with a tidal current. Ulbrickson hustled the boys out onto the water twice that day to give them as much exposure as he could to the challenging conditions. The Washington boats were the only ones there. All the other crews—having been visited by the Huskies and having sneaked a peek at them in action—were content to remain in the warmth of their shell houses for the rest of the day.
The warmest and coziest of them were the Bears from California. Ky Ebright and his freshman and varsity crews had arrived several days before and moved into a brand-spanking-new boathouse on the more convenient Poughkeepsie side of the river, complete with city water, hot showers, a dining room, cooking facilities, electric lights, and spacious sleeping quarters. The contrast with their own arrangements did not set well with the Washington boys. As the rain continued to fall and the wind to blow, their rickety old boathouse on the Highland side of the river, with its leaky roof and cold river-water showers, seemed by comparison to have been designed to make them as miserable as possible. And the meager fare at Mother Palmer’s boarding-house up on the bluff was proving downright starvation inducing this year. Instead of sleeping six to a room, as they had the year before, they now had to find places to stretch out eight or nine of their long frames in each room. Even absent the stifling heat of the previous year, the accommodations were decidedly uncomfortable.
What likely made Al Ulbrickson most uncomfortable, though, was late-breaking news he had just received from Ebright—that shortly before leaving Berkeley, he had moved four boys from his national championship crew of the previous year back into this year’s varsity shell. All told, in fact, six of the boys in the Cal boat were now veterans of last year’s championship crew. Ulbrickson had to wonder if Cal’s losing crew in Oakland had, to some extent, been a ruse employed by Ebright en route to the greater prize of a national championship in Poughkeepsie. Worse, from Ulbrickson’s perspective, was that after a few days of watching the reconstituted Cal varsity boat working out on the Hudson, the throng of bookmakers and sportswriters who had descended on Poughkeepsie had already begun to make comparisons between this Cal crew and the great crew that won Olympic gold for California in 1932. And still worse news, in some ways, was the skinny on Cal’s big stroke oar, Eugene Berkenkamp. In the Poughkeepsie cigar shops, where men gathered to exchange the latest news and keep an eye on the odds that bookies were offering, the straight dope was that Berkenkamp was easily the equal of the great Peter Donlon. Donlon had stroked Cal to its other Olympic gold medal, in 1928, and to the fastest time ever on the Poughkeepsie course.
On June 12, six days before the race, Ulbrickson put both boats head-to-head on the river again, and the sophomores fell apart as soon as they saw the older boys. They came in a staggering eight lengths behind them. That finally settled it. Ulbrickson threw in the towel. The sophomores were officially demoted to junior varsity status; the older boys would row as varsity. For Joe and his crewmates, it was a terrible blow, but from Al Ulbrickson’s point of view, his new varsity’s eight-length margin of victory seemed to betoken good things to come in the climactic race on June 18. And it was the varsity race that he most wanted to win. Washington hadn’t managed that since 1926, when he himself stroked the Huskies to victory here. The same afternoon Ulbrickson made the sophomores’ demotion final, though, the New York Times’ Robert Kelley, watching the newly anointed Washington varsity in a trial, observed the same thing that reporters back in Seattle had noticed earlier—in the fourth and final mile the older boys seemed to be dragging just a bit.
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Later that day Ulbrickson received a hand-delivered message from the president of the United States. A few days before, Ulbrickson had invited FDR—an enthusiastic crew fan, whose son Franklin Junior would in a few days be rowing for Harvard against Yale—to ride along in his coaching launch and observe a time trial. The president responded regretfully that he could not make it, as he had to be in Washington, D.C., to sign the extension of the National Recovery Administration into law before going to New London to watch Franklin Junior row. But that evening Ulbrickson got a call from Hyde Park, just up the river. It was John Roosevelt, the president’s youngest son. He had also rowed for Harvard, and he wondered if he might ride along in the president’s place.
The following day, with John Roosevelt—a tall, good-looking kid with his hair slicked back and a warm, fetching smile—riding along in the launch, Ulbrickson held one final trial, just to see what to expect on race day. He started the older boys, his new varsity, at four miles. At the three-mile mark, Joe and the sophomores joined in. They quickly powered ahead of the varsity. At the two-mile mark, Tom Bolles’s exceptional freshmen joined in. For the rest of the way, the sophomores and the freshmen battled for first with a clearly exhausted varsity trailing both. At the end the freshmen came in half a length ahead of Joe and the sophomores, with both boats well ahead of the new varsity. George Pocock, surprised, said, “The sophomores looked like something today for the first time in weeks. It surely looked like a crew that is coming.” So far as we know, Al Ulbrickson said nothing—neither publicly nor to those closest to him—but he must have tossed and turned in his bunk that night. By now the die was cast, the programs had been printed, the older boys would still row as the varsity. But he couldn’t have liked what he had just seen.
On June 14, Ulbrickson invited Royal Brougham upstairs in the crew quarters to see something. For months, Brougham had been using his daily sports column, “The Morning After,” to sing the praises of the sophomores, sometimes at the expense of the older boys who now constituted the varsity. The older boys had taken it as a challenge. Now, in their dressing area, they had put up signs to keep themselves motivated: “Remember the Morning After!” and “Go Get Brougham’s Babies!” Furthermore, Ulbrickson told Brougham, Bobby Moch had a new mantra when he called for extra effort: “Take Ten for RB.” When Moch resorted to that one, Ulbrickson said, “the boys get so hot they have to wrap asbestos around their oar handles to keep the boat from burning up.”
What Ulbrickson likely didn’t know was that Bobby Moch had worked out an elaborate set of verbal codes to which only he and his crew knew the real meanings. Some of them were simply abbreviated versions of longer commands he sometimes called out in the boat. “SOS,” for instance, meant “slow on slides.” “OK” meant “keep the boat on keel.” Most, though, were coded because neither Moch nor his boys wanted the other crews or the coaches to know their exact meaning. “WTA” meant “wax their ass.” “BS” meant “beat the sophs.” And another, along the same lines, “BAB,” meant “beat Al’s babies.”
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All was quiet at the Washington shell house on the morning of the regatta. Unlike football coaches, who often try to key their players up for a big game, rowing coaches sometimes take the opposite tack. Well-trained oarsmen, in Ulbrickson’s experience, were like high-strung racehorses. Once they were in motion, they’d bust their hearts to win. Their willpower was indomitable. But you didn’t want to bring them to the gate in a lather. He always kept things low key before a race, and the boys spent the morning dozing, playing cards, and shooting the bull.
As many as a hundred thousand people had been expected for the regatta, but by midafternoon only perhaps a third of that number had showed up. It was a miserably wet, blustery day, with rain slanting down out of dark skies in torrents—no kind of day for standing out in the elements and watching a race. A navy destroyer and a coast guard cutter, the 240-foot Tampa, were on hand, but fewer than a hundred smaller craft—sailboats, houseboats, and yachts—had made their way to the finish line, where they lay swaying and bobbing at anchor. Nearly everyone aboard them stayed belowdecks for as long as possible while waiting for the races to begin.
Late in the afternoon, they began to emerge onto their decks in peacoats and slickers. In Poughkeepsie a group of fans bought bright pink oilskin tablecloths and fashioned capes and hoods out of them. Another group raided a hardware store, bought a roll of tar paper, and contrived to make raincoats out of it. Gradually, dark masses of people huddled under umbrellas made their way down the steep descent from Main Street to the water, where they took up positions along the shore or waited in line to cross the river on ferries. The observation train began to fill up, though this year the open-sided cars were not as popular as the enclosed coaches, which promptly reached capacity. At the shell houses on both sides of the river, boys finished rigging their shells. Of the sixteen shells on the river that day, George Pocock had built fifteen.
A little before 4:00 p.m., in a driving rain, Tom Bolles’s freshmen paddled upriver to the stake boats and took their starting position, with Columbia on one side and California on the other. Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson climbed into the train’s press car, along with John Roosevelt, who had overnight become an enthusiastic Husky fan. Water was dripping from the brim of Bolles’s raggedy old good-luck hat. Since he had started wearing it on race days in 1930, he hadn’t lost a race.
It was even more miserable out on the water than onshore. The boats lined up, the starting gun fired, and the regatta—and Washington’s quest to sweep the Hudson—was under way almost before anyone realized it. Royal Brougham, hunched over an NBC microphone, began to call the race. Fans along the shoreline peered through the curtain of rain, struggling to distinguish one boat from another.
For thirty strokes, it was a race. Then, with Don Hume at stroke, big Gordy Adam in the middle of the boat, and the tenacious Johnny White up in seat number two all settling into their rhythms, the Washington freshmen began to pull ahead, easing out in front of the others as if effortlessly, stroke by stroke.
By the end of a half mile, it was all but decided. The rest of the way was a cakewalk. In the last mile, the Washington boat lengthened its lead a bit more with each stroke. During the last hundred yards, in the press car, Tom Bolles became agitated, then excited, and then, finally, by all accounts, “hysterical,” waving his soggy old hat in the air as his freshmen—an even better crew than the previous year’s, he had been saying for months—slid across the line, defeating California by four lengths.
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By the time the 5:00 p.m. junior varsity race was set to go off, the rain had abated a bit, the downpour having given way to intermittent showers, but it was still windy and the water was still rough. As Joe paddled upriver toward the starting line, he, like his crewmates, had a lot to think about. Cal had not sent a JV boat to Poughkeepsie this year, but the eastern schools offered plenty of power and talent. Navy was a particular threat. The greatest danger, though, lay between the gunnels of his own shell. The defeats at the hands of the older boys had shaken his and the other boys’ self-confidence. For weeks now, the whole boat had been the subject of relentless second-guessing and humiliation. Everyone from Seattle to New York seemed to want to know one thing—what the hell had happened to them? Neither he nor anybody else in the boat could begin to answer the question. All they knew was that their easy belief in themselves after the victory in California had long since shattered and given way to a mixture of despair and anxiety, as well as a fierce determination bordering on rage—an all-consuming desire to salvage some degree of respect before the season ended. As they sat at the starting line, in the City of Seattle, rolling with the choppy waves, waiting for the crack of the starting gun, with rainwater running down their necks and backs and dripping from their noses, the real question was whether they had the maturity and discipline to keep their minds in the boat, or whether the rage and fear and uncertainty would unhinge them. They fidgeted in their seats, subtly adjusting their grips on the oars, shifting their weight, adjusting angles, trying to keep their muscles from knotting up and freezing in place. An uncertain wind buffeted their faces, forcing their eyes to narrow.
At the gun, they got off slowly, falling behind all three other boats: Navy, Syracuse, and Cornell. For half a mile, it looked as if they might, in fact, disintegrate as a crew, as they had done so often lately. Then something kicked in—something that had been missing for a long while. Somehow determination conquered despair. They began to pull in long, sweet, precisely synchronized strokes, rowing at a composed beat of thirty-three. By the end of the first mile, they had found their swing and surged into the lead. Cornell crept up behind them and briefly threatened but then fell back. Navy made a bid, charging forward as they passed under the railroad bridge at the two-mile mark, but Wink Winslow called for more. The beat went up a notch, to thirty-four, then another notch, to thirty-five. The Navy boat hesitated and then began to fade.
For the remaining mile and a half, the sophomores settled in and rowed gorgeously—a long, sleek line of perfection—passing under the automobile bridge and finishing a comfortable two lengths ahead of Navy. A barrage of bombs went off on the bridge to signal their victory. Sitting at his radio microphone, Royal Brougham exulted at the triumph of his favorites. At the end of the three-mile race, he declared, the sophomores had looked to him just as they had at the end of the two-mile race the year before—as if they could keep on rowing right down the river to New York City and see the town without breaking a sweat.
In the press coach on the observation train, Al Ulbrickson watched silently. He remained thus, utterly impassive, as the train began to reverse course, backing four miles up the river for the beginning of the varsity race. Inside he could only have been churning. He stood now on the precipice of doing what no coach had ever done, winning all three Poughkeepsie races in eight-oared boats, fulfilling his promise to the people of Seattle, and coming home with a clean shot at going to Berlin.
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As six o’clock and the start of the climactic race approached, the weather improved a bit more, though it continued to rain lightly and intermittently. More people abandoned the bars and hotel lobbies of Poughkeepsie and made their way down to the river. Rain or not, nobody in town that day wanted to miss out on seeing what sort of crew Ulbrickson had come up with that could displace his talented sophomores.
Seven varsity crews paddled to the starting line, to race for the national title, in a ghostly light mist. California had drawn the most favorable lane—lane number one, nearest the western bank of the river, where the current was least likely to affect a boat. Washington was right next door, in lane number two. Navy, Syracuse, Cornell, Columbia, and Pennsylvania stretched out across the river in lanes three through seven.
The referee called, “Ready all?” One by one, the coxswains shouted a few last-minute commands to their crews and then raised their hands. The starting gun fired. All seven boats lurched off the line together. Rowing stroke for stroke, they remained tightly bunched up for a hundred yards. Then Washington slowly edged out to a slight lead of about four feet. In the stern of his boat, the newly built Tamanawas, Bobby Moch told his crew to settle in. He was happy to find that they could hold their lead with the boys rowing at thirty-two. At a half mile, Washington continued to lead by about the same margin, with Syracuse just behind them and the midshipmen of Navy, on their outside, just a few feet behind Syracuse. Cornell and California were trailing badly.
Over the next half mile, Cornell slowly moved up on the outside, clawing its way into third position. But Washington expanded its lead over Syracuse. Cal still trailed the field. In his car on the observation train, Ky Ebright was worried. He leaned forward, peering through a pair of binoculars, studying the boats intently. He did not think his boys were staying close enough to make up the ground later. At a mile and a half, Washington was out in front by open water and stretching its lead. In the press car, the Seattle sportswriters and Washington fans began hooting and hollering now, led by, of all people, John Roosevelt, who had begun to chant, “Come on, Washington. Come on …” Fans on the docks and yachts in Poughkeepsie began to take up variations of the same chant as the boats came into view upriver. Surprising numbers of them seemed to want to see something historic here—that elusive sweep of the Hudson—even if it was a western crew that accomplished the feat. As they crossed the two-and-a-half-mile mark, Washington remained in the lead, though its advantage had shrunk to about ten feet. Al Ulbrickson watched closely from his seat in the press car amid the storm of chanting fans. He was still a mile and a half from doing what he desperately wanted to do, and he knew it. And he could see California and Cornell finally starting to move up on both sides of his boat. Navy and Syracuse were fading. It was going to be Washington, Cornell, or California.
Inch by inch the other two boats began to gain on Washington. Bobby Moch was riding the stern of the Tamanawas like a jockey now, leaning forward into the rain, urging the boat on, screaming for big tens, calling on the boys to take the stroke rate higher, then higher still. In the middle of the boat, big Jim McMillin was taking huge, powerful, smooth strokes. Up front Chuck Day, the number two man, was trying to finesse it, trying to keep the boat in perfect balance stroke after stroke even as Moch kept calling for more. But they were running out of steam, and California and Cornell just kept coming. By the time the three boats passed under the railroad bridge at mile three, Cornell had nosed out in front. Then Cal came up to match them. Slowly, agonizingly, Washington fell into third. Over the final mile, Cal and Cornell battled nose to nose, so close together that nobody could tell for sure who was ahead at any given moment. But everyone could tell that Washington had fallen two lengths behind.
As the leaders crossed the line, pandemonium ensued. On the automobile bridge, Mike Bogo, the three-hundred-pound Poughkeepsie barkeep in charge of setting off explosives to signal the lane number of the winner, detonated five bombs, for Cornell. Cal fans howled in outrage. Cornell fans rushed up the hill to the town’s principal bookie and demanded, and were paid, their winnings. Minutes later the official results were announced: Ky Ebright and California had won their third consecutive national varsity title, by one-third of a second. California fans rushed up the hill and demanded their winnings from the same bookie, who again paid out. He was now thirty thousand dollars in the hole, and soon officially out of business. Mike Bogo, dejected, later commented, “I don’t care who wins. I just like to bust them bombs.”
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Cal hadn’t just won it—they’d done so in a near record time of eighteen minutes and fifty-two seconds, despite a stiff crosswind and heavy chop. The only crew ever to have turned in a faster time was Ebright’s own Olympic gold medal crew of 1928.
Al Ulbrickson never betrayed a glimmer of emotion. Before leaving the press car, he dutifully congratulated Ky Ebright and then gamely fielded the barrage of questions leveled at him. Royal Brougham fired the first and potentially most lethal: Had he made a critical mistake by demoting his sophomores? “No siree!” Ulbrickson boomed out. “The sophomores rowed a great race, but they would never have finished third in that varsity event. That was one of the fastest fields in the history of the regatta … we didn’t have the power or the poundage to beat those other fellows.” But the next morning, Brougham pointed out again in his column that “those walloping sophomores of mine” had looked mighty fresh to him at the end of three miles, the varsity not so much.
For Ulbrickson, there was one overriding, and dark, fact to be confronted: he had failed again to make good on his public promises. It was very much an open question whether he was going to get another chance.
On June 21 the Post-Intelligencer ran a banner headline in its sports section: “$10,000 Crew Offer to Be Made for Tom Bolles.” The accompanying story asserted that an unnamed eastern college had approached Bolles just hours after the freshman race. The salary—$164,000 in today’s dollars—was vastly more than Washington could match, as university officials in Seattle immediately made clear. That afternoon Bolles denied that he had been approached, but likely because he had already turned the offer down. The word on the street was that, rather than going east, Bolles would replace Ulbrickson in Seattle. Bolles was working on his master’s degree in history, and it seemed unlikely that he would want to leave the university until he finished it. One way or the other, it was apparent that the coaching situation at Washington was suddenly uncertain, and that while Bolles’s star had suddenly ascended, Ulbrickson’s had fallen just as abruptly. On June 23, Royal Brougham advised his readers to ignore the rumors, saying he had it on good authority that Bolles had promised Ulbrickson he would never take the Washington job unless Ulbrickson had moved on to greener pastures first. But nobody outside of the university’s administration, including Al Ulbrickson, was really sure what was going on. Ulbrickson was sure of one thing, though: he figured he had worked too hard, brought the crew program too far, to be unceremoniously dumped. “I won’t wait until they fire me,” he confided to a friend. “I’ll quit first.”
The town of Grand Coulee, with B Street off to the right