The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part IV. Touching the Divine 1936
Men as fit as you, when your everyday strength is gone, can draw on a mysterious reservoir of power far greater. Then it is that you can reach for the stars. That is the way champions are made.
—George Yeoman Pocock
Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw the Hungarian boat, two lanes over, leap forward, its oarsmen already in midpull. A split second later, he saw the British boat do the same. He bellowed, “Let’s get out of here!” Bobby Moch barked, “Row!” All eight American oars dug into the water. For another fraction of a second, the Husky Clipper sagged slightly under the boys as nearly a ton of deadweight resisted being put into motion. Then the boat sprang forward, and the boys were away—already a stroke and a half behind in the race of their lives.
As he realized what had happened, Chuck Day’s confidence slipped a notch. He felt it in his gut, a sharp, sinking feeling. An unnerving thought shot through Roger Morris’s mind: “We and the English are screwed.” Bobby Moch had the same thought, but it was his job to think things through, not to panic. He’d planned to come from behind anyway, as always. But the spectacularly bad start meant that the two-length handicap he faced by virtue of his lane assignment was even greater now. He needed to build up some momentum, and he needed to do it quickly. It was going to be a titanic struggle to gain headway against the wind. He shouted at Hume to hit it hard. Hume set the pace high at thirty-eight. The boys dug hard and fast.
Across the racecourse, in lanes one and two, the Germans and Italians pulled off the line cleanly and moved briskly to the front of the field. The British boat, once it got going, also went out hard, charging furiously back up into contention. At the rear of the field, the American boat began to claw its way more slowly back into position. As the first boats crossed the hundred-meter mark, an announcer aboard the shortwave-radio boat broadcast the standings to the loudspeakers down at the finish line. The crowd roared when it learned that Germany was in first place. It wasn’t a commanding lead, though, and it didn’t mean much so early in the race. All six boats were loosely bunched up, roughly a length and a half separating the German bow in first place from the American bow in last place. Bobby Moch told Hume to ease off on the rate a bit, and Hume backed it down toward thirty-five. It was still higher than Moch wanted to row, nearly a sprinting pace, but it was what he needed to stay in contention. He ran some quick calculations in his mind. If he could manage to hang in at the back of the field, rowing in the midthirties, he figured, maybe he’d still have some gas in the tank for the inevitable sprint at the end. The boys began to settle in and swing with the boat.
The German eight
As they moved out into the widest part of the Langer See, the winds grew even stronger. White, frothy waves began splashing over the small American flag that was flapping wildly out on the foredeck. With gusts pummeling his bow on the port side now, Bobby Moch began to wrestle with the tiller lines in his hands. In buffeting winds like these, the only way to keep the boat from meandering down the course in series of S curves was to use the rudder to crab the boat slightly to port, proceeding down the course in a straight line, but with the bow slightly out of alignment with the stern. It meant there would be more resistance from the water, increased drag on the boat, and therefore more work for the boys with oars in their hands. And it was fiendishly tricky. Too much rudder and Moch ran the risk of careening into the lane to his left, too little and he might get blown to his right and off the course entirely.
The Italian eight
Two hundred meters out, Noel Duckworth and Ran Laurie made a play for the early lead, surging quickly past Germany and into second place behind Switzerland, pressing them hard. Bobby Moch glanced over at them but didn’t take the bait. It was fine with him if the Brits wanted to burn themselves out in the first half of the race. But then, three hundred meters out, Moch saw something that chilled him to his core. Right in front of him, Don Hume suddenly went white in the face and all but closed his eyes. His mouth fell open. He was still rowing, still holding a steady rhythm, but Moch wasn’t sure Hume was fully aware of what he was doing. Moch yelled at him, “Don! Are you OK?” Hume didn’t respond. Moch couldn’t tell if he was about to pass out or just in some kind of zone. He decided just to hold things as they were for now, but he was starting to seriously doubt that Hume could finish the race, let alone sprint when the time for sprinting came.
The boats were approaching the five-hundred-meter mark now, a quarter of the way down the racecourse, with Switzerland, Britain, and Germany essentially tied for the lead, the U.S. and the Italian shells behind them. Hungary was last. Except for the British, the leaders were all moving into the lee of the southern shore, where the water was nearly flat. The American boys were only a length off the pace but still out in the widest part of the lake, bucking the relentless, punishing winds, spray flying from their oars with every release. A slow, burning pain started to pulse up their arms and legs and dance across their backs. Very slowly they began to fall farther back. By six hundred meters, they were a length and a half back. By eight hundred meters, they were dead last again. Their heart rates began climbing toward 160 or 170 beats per minute.
Over in the sheltered water of lane two, Italy suddenly came up from the rear and worked its way into a narrow lead over Germany. As the bow of the Italian boat sliced across the halfway point at the thousand-meter mark, a bell began to toll, signaling the spectators down at the finish line that the competitors were approaching. Seventy-five thousand people rose to their feet and for the first time started to get a look at the boats edging toward them, down the gray expanse of the Langer See, like so many long, narrow spiders. On the balcony of Haus West, Hitler, Goebbels, and Göring pressed their binoculars to their eyes. On the balcony of the boathouse next door, Al Ulbrickson saw the Husky Clipper coming down the outside lane alongside the British boat. Trees and buildings blocked his view of the near lanes and the boats in them. For a moment, from his vantage point, it looked as if maybe his boys and the Brits were all alone out front, duking it out. Then he heard the PA announcer call out the thousand-meter-split times. The crowd roared. Italy was in first place, but just one second ahead of Germany, in second place. Switzerland was another second behind Germany, in third. Hungary was fourth. Great Britain had faded to the rear of the field, essentially tied with the United States for last place. Ulbrickson’s boys were nearly five full seconds behind the leaders now.
In the stern of the Husky Clipper, Bobby Moch couldn’t afford to wait any longer. He hunched forward and bellowed for Hume to take the stroke rate up. “Higher!” he shouted into Hume’s face. “Higher!” Nothing happened. “Higher, Don! Higher!” he screamed, pleading now. Hume’s head rocked back and forth with the rhythm of the boat, as if he were about to nod off. He seemed to be staring at something on the floor of the boat. Moch couldn’t even make eye contact with him. The boys kept rowing at thirty-five, losing their battle with the wind, and nearly every other boat on the water. Bobby Moch tried to fight off panic.
At the eleven-hundred-meter mark, Germany retook the lead from Italy. Another enormous roar went up from the crowd, just down the lake now. Then the roaring resolved itself into chanting—“Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land!”—in time with the stroke of the German boat. On his balcony Hitler peered out from under the visor of his hat and rocked back and forth in time with the chant. Al Ulbrickson could finally see the German and Italian boats now, forging up the near side of the lake, clearly in the lead, but he ignored them and locked his gray eyes onto the American boat, over on the far side of the water, trying to read Bobby Moch’s mind. This was starting to look like Poughkeepsie all over again. Ulbrickson didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. In Seattle a hush fell over Harry Rantz’s living room. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on in Berlin, but the announcement of the split times was alarming.
In the boat, Joe had no idea how things stood, except that he was vaguely aware that he hadn’t seen any boats falling away behind him—nothing but the flotilla of motor launches trailing the field, carrying officials and Riefenstahl’s cameramen. He had been rowing hard against the wind all the way, and his arms and legs were starting to feel as if they were encased in cement. There had been no real opportunity to conserve energy. It was too early for the sprint, but he was starting to wonder what would happen when Moch called for it. How much would he have left? How much would any of them have left? All he could do was trust Moch’s judgment.
Two seats in front of him, Bobby Moch was still desperately trying to figure out what to do. Hume still wasn’t responding, and as they approached the twelve-hundred-meter mark, the situation was becoming critical. The only option Moch had left, the only thing he could think of, was to hand the stroke off to Joe. It would be a dangerous move—unheard of really—more likely than not to confuse everyone with an oar in his hand, to throw the rhythm of the boat into utter chaos. But Moch had lost his ability to regulate the pace of his boat, and that spelled certain doom. If he could get Joe to set the rhythm, maybe Hume would sense the change and pick it up. At any rate, he had to do something, and he had to do it now.
As Moch leaned forward to tell Joe to set the stroke and raise the rate, Don Hume’s head snapped up, his eyes popped open, he clamped his mouth shut, and he looked Bobby Moch straight in the eyes. Moch, startled, locked eyes with him and yelled, “Pick ’er up! Pick ’er up!” Hume picked up the pace. Moch yelled again, “One length to make up—six hundred meters!” The boys leaned into their oars. The stroke rate jumped to thirty-six, then thirty-seven. By the time the field charged past the fifteen-hundred-meter mark, the Husky Clipper had eased from fifth to third place. On the shell house balcony, down the course, Al Ulbrickson’s hopes silently soared when he saw the boat move, but the move seemed to peter out with the boys still well short of the lead.
With five hundred meters to go, they were still nearly a full length behind Germany and Italy, over in lanes one and two. The Swiss and the Hungarians were fading badly. The British were coming back, but once again Ran Laurie, with his narrow-bladed oar, was having a difficult time getting enough of a catch to help power his shell through the wind and waves. Moch commanded Hume to take the beat up another notch. Across the way, Wilhelm Mahlow, the cox in the German boat, told Gerd Völs, his stroke, the same thing. Thirty-year-old Cesare Milani in the Italian boat shouted the same directive to his stroke, Enrico Garzelli. Italy crept a few feet farther ahead of the field.
As the Langer See narrowed down into the home stretch, the Husky Clipper at last entered water that was more sheltered from the wind, protected on both sides by tall trees and buildings. The game was on now. Bobby Moch eased the rudder back parallel with the hull of the boat and the Clipper finally began to run free. With the playing field more even, and Don Hume back among the living, the boys suddenly started to move again at 350 meters, reeling the leaders in seat by seat. With 300 meters to go, the bow of the American boat pulled roughly even with the German and Italian bows. Approaching the final 200 meters, the boys pulled ahead by a third of a length. A ripple of apprehension shuddered through the crowd.
Bobby Moch glanced up at the huge black-and-white “Ziel” sign at the finish. He began to calculate just what he needed to get out of the boys to make sure he got there ahead of the boats off to his left. It was time to start lying.
Moch barked, “Twenty more strokes!” He started counting them down, “Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, fifteen … Twenty, nineteen …” Each time he hit fifteen he reset back to twenty. In a daze, believing they were finally bearing down on the line, the boys threw their long bodies into each stroke, rowing furiously, flawlessly, and with uncanny elegance. Their oars were bending like bows, the blades entering and leaving the water cleanly, smoothly, efficiently, the shell’s whale-oil-slick hull ghosting forward between pulls, its sharp cedar prow slicing through dark water, boat and men forged together, bounding fiercely forward like a living thing.
Then they rowed into a world of confusion. They were in full-sprint mode, ratcheting the stroke rate up toward forty, when they hit a wall of sound. They were suddenly right up alongside the enormous wooden bleachers on the north side of the course, not more than ten feet from thousands of spectators screaming in unison, “Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land!” The sound of it cascaded down on them, reverberated from one shore to the other, and utterly drowned out Bobby Moch’s voice. Even Don Hume, sitting just eighteen inches in front of him, couldn’t make out what Moch was shouting. The noise assaulted them, bewildered them. Across the way, the Italian boat began another surge. So did the German boat, both rowing at over forty now. Both clawed their way back to even with the American boat. Bobby Moch saw them and screamed into Hume’s face, “Higher! Higher! Give her all you’ve got!” Nobody could hear him. Stub McMillin didn’t know what was happening, but he didn’t like whatever it was. He flung the F word into the wind. Joe didn’t know what was happening either, except that he hurt as he’d never hurt in a boat before—hot knives slipped into the sinews of his arms and legs and sliced across his broad back with each stroke; every desperate breath seared his lungs. He fixed his eyes on the back of Hume’s neck and focused his mind on the simple, cruel necessity of taking the next stroke.
On the balcony of Haus West, Hitler dropped his binoculars to his side. He continued to rock back and forth with the chanting of the crowd, rubbing his right knee each time he leaned forward. Goebbels held his hands over his head applauding wildly. Göring began thumping Werner von Blomberg’s back. On the balcony next door, Al Ulbrickson, the Deadpan Kid, stood motionless, expressionless, a cigarette in his mouth. He fully expected to see Don Hume pitch forward over his oar at any moment. NBC’s Bill Slater was screaming over KOMO’s airwaves in Seattle. Harry and Joyce and the kids couldn’t make out what was happening, but they were all on their feet. They thought maybe the boys were ahead.
Moch glanced left, saw the German and Italian boats surging again, and knew that somehow the boys had to go even higher, give even more than they were giving, even as he knew they were already giving everything they had. He could see it in their faces—in Joe’s contorted grimace, in Don Hume’s wide-open, astonished eyes, eyes that seemed to stare past him into some unfathomable void. He grabbed the wooden knockers on the tiller lines and began to bang them against the ironbark knocker-boards fastened to either side of the hull. Even if the boys couldn’t hear it, maybe they could feel the vibrations.
They did. And they immediately understood it for what it was—a signal that they needed to do what was impossible, to go even higher. Somewhere, deep down inside, each of them grasped at shreds of will and strength they did not know they possessed. Their hearts were pumping at nearly two hundred beats per minute now. They were utterly beyond exhaustion, beyond what their bodies should be able to endure. The slightest miscue by any one of them would mean catching a crab, and catastrophe. In the gray gloom below the grandstands full of screaming faces, their white blades flickered in and out of the water.
It was neck and neck now. On the balcony, Al Ulbrickson bit the cigarette in his mouth in half, spat it out, jumped onto a chair, and began to bellow at Moch: “Now! Now! Now!” Somewhere a voice squealed hysterically on a loudspeaker, “Italien! Deutschland! Italien! Achh … Amerika! Italien!” The three boats stormed toward the finish line, the lead going back and forth. Moch pounded on the ironwood as hard and as fast as he could, the snap-snap-snap of it firing almost like a machine gun in the stern of the boat. Hume took the beat higher and higher until the boys hit forty-four. They had never rowed this high before—never even conceived of it as possible. They edged narrowly ahead, but the Italians began to close again. The Germans were right beside them. “Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land!” thundered in the boys’ ears. Bobby Moch sat astride the stern, hunched forward, pounding the wood, screaming words no one could hear. The boys took one last mighty stroke and hurled the boat across the line. In the span of a single second, the German, Italian, and American boats all crossed the line.
On the balcony Hitler raised a clenched fist shoulder high. Goebbels leapt up and down. Hermann Göring slapped his knee again, a maniacal grin on his face.
In the American boat, Don Hume bowed his head as if in prayer. In the German boat, Gerd Völs toppled backward into the lap of the number seven man, Herbert Schmidt, who had raised a triumphant fist high over his head. In the Italian boat, somebody leaned forward and vomited overboard. The crowd continued to roar, “Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land!”
Nobody knew who had won.
The American boat drifted on down the lake, beyond the grandstands, into a quieter world, the boys leaning over their oars, gasping for breath, their faces still shattered by pain. Shorty Hunt realized he couldn’t get his eyes to track. Someone whispered, “Who won?” Roger Morris croaked, “Well … we did … I think.”
Finally the loudspeakers crackled back to life with the official results. The bow of the American boat had touched the line in 6:25.4, six-tenths of a second ahead of the Italian boat, exactly a second ahead of the German boat. The chanting of the crowd faded suddenly, as if turned off by a spigot.
The gold medal finish, USA in the far lane
On the balcony of Haus West, Hitler turned and strode back into the building, unspeaking. Goebbels and Göring and the rest of the Nazi officials scurried in behind him. In the American boat, it took a moment for the boys to understand the German announcement. But when they did, their grimaces of pain turned suddenly to broad white smiles, smiles that decades later would flicker across old newsreels, illuminating the greatest moment of their lives.
In Seattle, Joe’s half siblings whooped and hollered and cheered and tumbled about the house, tossing seat cushions and pillows in the air. Harry stood, in the middle of the chaos, applauding. Joyce sat in an easy chair, crying unabashedly, rapturously. Eventually, with tears still streaming down her face, she rose to turn off the radio. She carefully returned the clover to her book, hugged her father-in-law-to-be for the first time ever, and started making sandwiches.
The medal ceremony, Bobby Moch on the podium