The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part I. What Seasons They Have Been Through 1899-1933
The Washington shell house, 1930s
Having rowed myself since the tender age of twelve and having been around rowing ever since, I believe I can speak authoritatively on what we may call the unseen values of rowing—the social, moral, and spiritual values of this oldest of chronicled sports in the world. No didactic teaching will place these values in a young man’s soul. He has to get them by his own observation and lessons.
—George Yeoman Pocock
Monday, October 9, 1933, began as a gray day in Seattle. A gray day in a gray time.
Along the waterfront, seaplanes from the Gorst Air Transport company rose slowly from the surface of Puget Sound and droned westward, flying low under the cloud cover, beginning their short hops over to the naval shipyard at Bremerton. Ferries crawled away from Colman Dock on water as flat and dull as old pewter. Downtown, the Smith Tower pointed, like an upraised finger, toward somber skies. On the streets below the tower, men in fraying suit coats, worn-out shoes, and battered felt fedoras wheeled wooden carts toward the street corners where they would spend the day selling apples and oranges and packages of gum for a few pennies apiece. Around the corner, on the steep incline of Yesler Way, Seattle’s old, original Skid Road, more men stood in long lines, heads bent, regarding the wet sidewalks and talking softly among themselves as they waited for the soup kitchens to open. Trucks from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer rattled along cobblestone streets, dropping off bundles of newspapers. Newsboys in woolen caps lugged the bundles to busy intersections, to trolley stops, and to hotel entrances, where they held the papers aloft, hawking them for two cents a copy, shouting out the day’s headline: “15,000,000 to Get U.S. Relief.”
A few blocks south of Yesler, in a shantytown sprawling along the edge of Elliott Bay, children awoke in damp cardboard boxes that served as beds. Their parents crawled out of tin-and-tar-paper shacks and into the stench of sewage and rotting seaweed from the mudflats to the west. They broke apart wooden crates and stooped over smoky campfires, feeding the flames. They looked up at the uniform gray skies and, seeing in them tokens of much colder weather ahead, wondered how they would make it through another winter.
Northwest of downtown, in the old Scandinavian neighborhood of Ballard, tugboats belching plumes of black smoke nosed long rafts of logs into the locks that would raise them to the level of Lake Washington. But the gritty shipyards and boat works clustered around the locks were largely quiet, nearly abandoned in fact. In Salmon Bay, just to the east, dozens of fishing boats, unused for months, sat bobbing at moorage, the paint peeling from their weathered hulls. On Phinney Ridge, looming above Ballard, wood smoke curled up from the stovepipes and chimneys of hundreds of modest homes and dissolved into the mist overhead.
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It was the fourth year of the Great Depression. One in four working Americans—ten million people—had no job and no prospects of finding one, and only a quarter of them were receiving any kind of relief. Industrial production had fallen by half in those four years. At least one million, and perhaps as many as two million, were homeless, living on the streets or in shantytowns like Seattle’s Hooverville. In many American towns, it was impossible to find a bank whose doors weren’t permanently shuttered; behind those doors the savings of countless American families had disappeared forever. Nobody could say when, or if, the hard times would ever end.
And perhaps that was the worst of it. Whether you were a banker or a baker, a homemaker or homeless, it was with you night and day—a terrible, unrelenting uncertainty about the future, a feeling that the ground could drop out from under you for good at any moment. In March an oddly appropriate movie had come out and quickly become a smash hit: King Kong. Long lines formed in front of movie theaters around the country, people of all ages shelling out precious quarters and dimes to see the story of a huge, irrational beast that had invaded the civilized world, taken its inhabitants into its clutches, and left them dangling over the abyss.
There were glimmers of better times to come, but they were just glimmers. The stock market had rebounded earlier in the year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbing an all-time record of 15.34 percent in one day on March 15 to close at 62.10. But Americans had seen so much capital destroyed between 1929 and the end of 1932 that almost everyone believed, correctly as it would turn out, that it might take the better part of a generation—twenty-five years—before the Dow once again saw its previous high of 381 points. And, at any rate, the price of a share of General Electric didn’t mean a thing to the vast majority of Americans, who owned no stock at all. What mattered to them was that the strongboxes and mason jars under their beds, in which they now kept what remained of their life savings, were often perilously close to empty.
A new president was in the White House, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a distant cousin of that most upbeat and energetic of presidents, Teddy Roosevelt. FDR had come into office brimming with optimism and trumpeting a raft of slogans and programs. But Herbert Hoover had come in spouting equal optimism, buoyantly predicting that a day would soon come when poverty would be washed out of American life forever. “Ours is a land rich in resources; stimulating in its glorious beauty; filled with millions of happy homes; blessed with comfort and opportunity,” Hoover had said at his inaugural, before adding words that would soon prove particularly ironic: “In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure.”
At any rate, it was hard to know what to make of the new President Roosevelt. As he began putting programs into place over the summer, a rising chorus of hostile voices had begun to call him a radical, a socialist, even a Bolshevik. It was unnerving to hear: as bad as things were, few Americans wanted to go down the Russian path.
There was a new man in Germany too, brought into power in January by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, a group with a reputation for thuggish behavior. It was even harder to know what that meant. But Adolf Hitler was hell-bent on rearming his country despite the Treaty of Versailles. And while most Americans were distinctly uninterested in European affairs, the British were increasingly worked up about it all, and one had to wonder whether the horrors of the Great War were about to be replayed. It seemed unlikely, but the possibility hung there, a persistent and troubling cloud.
The day before, October 8, 1933, the American Weekly, a Sunday supplement in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and dozens of other American newspapers, had run a single-frame, half-page cartoon, one in a series titled City Shadows. Dark, drawn in charcoal, chiaroscuro in style, it depicted a man in a derby sitting dejectedly on a sidewalk by his candy stand with his wife, behind him, dressed in rags and his son, beside him, holding some newspapers. The caption read “Ah don’t give up, Pop. Maybe ya didn’t make a sale all week, but it ain’t as if I didn’t have my paper route.” But it was the expression on the man’s face that was most arresting. Haunted, haggard, somewhere beyond hopeless, it suggested starkly that he no longer believed in himself. For many of the millions of Americans who read the American Weekly every Sunday, it was an all too familiar expression—one they saw every morning when they glanced in the mirror.
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But the overcast didn’t last, nor did the gloom, in Seattle that day. By late morning, seams began to open in the cloud cover. The still waters of Lake Washington, stretched out at the city’s back, slowly shifted from gray to green to blue. On the campus of the University of Washington, perched on a bluff overlooking the lake, slanting rays of sunlight began to warm the shoulders of students lounging on a wide quadrangle of grass in front of the university’s massive new stone library, eating their lunches, poring over books, chatting idly. Sleek black crows strutted among the students, hoping for a morsel of bologna or cheese left unguarded. High above the library’s stained-glass windows and soaring neo-Gothic spires, screeching seagulls whirled in white loops against the slowly bluing sky.
For the most part, the young men and women sat in separate groups. The men wore pressed slacks and freshly shined oxfords and cardigan sweaters. As they ate, they talked earnestly about classes, about the big upcoming football game with the University of Oregon, and about the improbable ending of the World Series two days before, when little Mel Ott had come to the plate for the New York Giants with two out in the tenth inning. Ott had run the count out to two and two, and then smashed a long line drive into the center field seats to score the series-winning run over the Washington Senators. It was the kind of thing that showed you that a little guy could still make all the difference, and it reminded you how suddenly events could turn around in this world, for better or for worse. Some of the young men sucked lazily on briar pipes, and the sweet smell of Prince Albert tobacco smoke drifted among them. Others dangled cigarettes from their lips, and as they paged through the day’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer they could take satisfaction in a half-page ad that trumpeted the latest proof of the health benefits of smoking: “21 of 23 Giants World’s Champions Smoke Camels. It Takes Healthy Nerves to Win the World Series.”
The young women, sitting in their own clusters on the lawn, wore short-heeled pumps and rayon hose, calf-length skirts, and loose-fitting blouses with ruffles and flounces on the sleeves and at the necklines. Their hair was sculpted into a wide variety of shapes and styles. Like the young men, the women talked about classes and sometimes about baseball too. Those who had had dates over the weekend talked about the new movies in town—Gary Cooper in One Sunday Afternoon, at the Paramount, and a Frank Capra film, Lady for a Day, at the Roxy. Like the boys, some of them smoked cigarettes.
By midafternoon the sun had broken through, unfurling a warm, translucent day of golden light. Two young men, taller than most, loped across the grassy quad in front of the library, in a hurry. One of them, a six-foot-three freshman named Roger Morris, had a loose, gangly build; a tousle of dark hair with a forelock that perpetually threatened to fall over his long face; and heavy black eyebrows that lent him, at first glance, a bit of a glowering look. The other young man, Joe Rantz, also a freshman, was nearly as tall, at six foot two and a half, but more tautly built, with broad shoulders and solid, powerful legs. He wore his blond hair in a crew cut. He had a strong jawline, fine, regular features, gray eyes verging into blue, and he drew covert glances from many of the young women sitting on the grass.
The two young men were taking the same engineering class and had a common and audacious objective that radiant afternoon. They rounded a corner of the library, skirted the concrete circle of Frosh Pond, descended a long grassy slope, and then crossed Montlake Boulevard, dodging a steady stream of black coupes, sedans, and roadsters. The pair made their way eastward between the basketball pavilion and the horseshoe-shaped excavation that served as the campus football stadium. Then they turned south again, following a dirt road through open woods and into a marshy area fringing Lake Washington. As they walked they began to overtake other boys heading in the same direction.
They finally came to a point of land located just where the canal known as the Montlake Cut—simply the Cut, in local parlance—entered Union Bay on the west side of Lake Washington. Perched on the point was an odd-looking building. Its sides—clad in weather-beaten shingles and inset with a series of large windows—slanted obliquely inward, rising toward a gambrel roof. When the boys moved around to the front of the building, they found an enormous pair of sliding doors, the upper halves of which consisted almost entirely of windowpanes. A wide wooden ramp ran from the sliding doors down to a long dock floating parallel to the shore of the Cut.
It was an old airplane hangar built by the U.S. Navy in 1918 to house seaplanes for the Naval Aviation Training Corps during the Great War. The war had ended before the building could actually be used, so it had been turned over to the University of Washington in the fall of 1919. Ever since, it had served as the shell house for the school’s rowing team. Now both the wide wooden ramp leading down to the water and a narrow ledge of land to the east of the building were crowded with boys milling about nervously, 175 of them, mostly tall and lean, though a dozen or so of them were notably short and slight. A handful of older boys were there too, leaning against the building in white jerseys emblazoned with large purple Ws, their arms crossed, sizing up the newcomers.
Joe Rantz and Roger Morris stepped into the building. Along each side of the cavernous room, long, sleek racing shells were stacked four high on wooden racks. With their burnished wooden hulls turned upward, they gleamed in white shafts of light that fell from the windows overhead, giving the place the feel of a cathedral. The air was dry and still. It smelled sweetly of varnish and freshly sawn cedar. Collegiate banners, faded but still colorful, hung from the high rafters: California, Yale, Princeton, Navy, Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, Syracuse, MIT. In the corners of the room, dozens of yellow-spruce oars stood on end, each ten to twelve feet long and tipped with a white blade. At the back of the room, up in a loft, could be heard someone at work with a wood rasp.
Joe and Roger signed the freshman crew registration book, then returned to the bright light outside and sat on a bench, waiting for instructions. Joe glanced at Roger, who seemed relaxed and confident.
“Aren’t you nervous?” Joe whispered.
Roger glanced back at him. “I’m panicked. I just look like this to demoralize the competition.” Joe smiled briefly, too close to panic himself to hold the smile for long.
For Joe Rantz, perhaps more than for any of the other young men sitting by the Montlake Cut, something hung in the balance that afternoon, and he was all too aware of it. The girls on the library lawn who had glanced appreciatively his way had had to overlook what was painfully obvious to him: that his clothes were not like those of most of the other students—his trousers not neatly creased, his oxfords neither new nor freshly polished, his sweater neither crisp nor clean but rather an old and rumpled hand-me-down. Joe understood cold reality. He knew he might not belong here at all, and he certainly couldn’t stay long in this world of pressed trousers, of briar pipes and cardigan sweaters, of interesting ideas, sophisticated conversation, and intriguing opportunities, if things did not go well in the shell house. He would never be a chemical engineer, and he would not be able to marry his high school sweetheart, who had followed him to Seattle so they could begin to build a life together. To fail at this rowing business would mean, at best, returning to a small, bleak town on the Olympic Peninsula with nothing ahead of him but the prospect of living alone in a cold, empty, half-built house, surviving as best he could on odd jobs, foraging for food, and maybe, if he was very lucky, finding another highway construction job with the Civilian Conservation Corps. At worst it would mean joining a long line of broken men standing outside a soup kitchen like the one down on Yesler Way.
A spot on the freshman crew would not mean a rowing scholarship, for there was no such thing at Washington in 1933, but it would mean the guarantee of a part-time job somewhere on campus, and that—combined with the little Joe had been able to save during the long year of hard manual labor he had endured since graduating from high school—just might get him through college. But he knew that within a few short weeks only a handful of the crowd of boys gathered around him would still be contenders for the freshman crew. In the end, there were only nine seats in the first freshman shell.
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The rest of the afternoon was largely consumed by the collection of facts and figures. Joe Rantz and Roger Morris and all the other hopefuls were told to step onto scales, to stand next to measuring sticks, to fill out forms detailing their medical backgrounds. Assistant coaches and older students carrying clipboards stood by eyeing them and recording the information. Thirty of the freshmen, it turned out, were six feet or taller, twenty-five were six one or more, fourteen were six two or more, six were six three or more, one was six four, and two “reached six feet five into the atmosphere,” as one of the sportswriters present noted.
Directing the proceedings was a slim young man toting a large megaphone. Tom Bolles, the freshman coach, was a former Washington oarsman himself. With a bland, pleasant face, a bit lean in the jowls, and given to wearing wire-rimmed glasses, Bolles had been a history major, was working on a master’s degree, and had a distinctly scholarly look about him—a look that had spurred some of Seattle’s sportswriters to begin referring to him as “the professor.” And in many ways, the role that lay ahead of him that fall, as it did every fall, was that of an educator. When his colleagues in the basketball pavilion or on the football field first encountered their freshman prospects each fall, they could assume that the boys had played the sport in high school and knew at least the rudiments of their respective games. But almost none of the young men assembled outside the shell house that afternoon had ever rowed a stroke in his life, certainly not in a vessel as delicate and unforgiving as a racing shell, pulling oars twice as long as the young men were tall.
Most of them were city boys like the boys lounging up on the quad—the sons of lawyers and businessmen—dressed neatly in woolen slacks and cardigan sweaters. A few, like Joe, were farm boys or lumberjacks or fishermen, the products of foggy coastal villages, damp dairy farms, and smoky lumber towns all over the state. Growing up, they had wielded axes and fishing gaffs and pitchforks expertly, and they had built up strong arms and broad shoulders doing so. Their strength would be an asset, Bolles knew, but rowing—he understood as well as anyone—was at least as much art as brawn, and a keen intelligence was just as important as brute strength. There were a thousand and one small things that had to be learned, mastered, and brought to bear in precisely the right way to propel a twenty-four-inch-wide cedar shell, carrying three-quarters of a ton of human flesh and bone, through the water with any semblance of speed and grace. Over the next few months, he would need to teach these boys, or those few among them who made the freshman team, every last one of those thousand and one small things. And some big ones as well: Would the farm boys be able to keep up with the intellectual side of the sport? Would the city boys have the toughness simply to survive? Most of them, Bolles knew, would not.
Another tall man stood watching quietly from the broad doorway of the shell house, dressed impeccably, as he always was, in a dark three-piece business suit, a crisp white shirt, a tie, and a fedora, spinning a Phi Beta Kappa key on a lanyard he held in one hand. Al Ulbrickson, head coach of the University of Washington rowing program, was a stickler for detail, and his style of dress sent a simple message: that he was the boss, and that he was all business. He was just thirty—young enough that he needed to draw a line of demarcation between himself and the boys he commanded. The suit and the Phi Beta Kappa key helped in that regard. It also helped that he was strikingly good-looking and built like the oarsman he had been, the former stroke oar of a Washington crew that had won national championships in 1924 and 1926. He was tall, muscular, broad shouldered, and distinctly Nordic in his features, with high cheekbones, a chiseled jawline, and cold slate-gray eyes. They were the kind of eyes that shut you up fast if you were a young man inclined to challenge something he had just said.
He had been born right here in the Montlake district of Seattle, not far from the shell house. And he had grown up just a few miles down Lake Washington on Mercer Island, long before it became an enclave for the wealthy. His family, in fact, had been of very modest means, straining to make ends meet. In order to attend Franklin High School, he had had to row a small boat two miles over to Seattle and back every day for four years. He had excelled at Franklin, but he never really felt challenged by his teachers. It wasn’t until he arrived at the University of Washington and turned out for crew that he came into his own. Finally challenged in the classroom and on the water, he excelled in both areas, and when he graduated in 1926, Washington quickly hired him as the freshman crew coach, and then as head coach. Now he lived and breathed Washington rowing. The university, and rowing, had made him who he was. Now they were almost a religion to him. His job was to win converts.
Ulbrickson was also the least talkative man on campus, perhaps in the state, legendary for his reticence and the inscrutability of his countenance. He was half Danish and half Welsh by ancestry, and New York sportswriters, both frustrated and somewhat charmed by how hard they had to work to get a decent quote out of him, had taken to calling him the “Dour Dane.” His oarsmen also found the name apt, but none of them was likely to call him it to his face. He commanded enormous respect among his boys, but he did so almost entirely without raising his voice, almost, in fact, without speaking to them. His few words were so carefully chosen and so effectively delivered that every one of them fell like a blade or a balm on the boy to whom they were delivered. He strictly forbade his boys from smoking, cursing, or drinking, though he was known occasionally to do all three himself when safely out of sight or earshot of his crews. To the boys, he seemed at times almost devoid of emotion, yet year after year he somehow managed to stir the deepest and most affirmative emotions many of them had ever known.
As Ulbrickson stood watching the new crop of freshmen that afternoon, Royal Brougham, the sports editor at the Post-Intelligencer, edged close to him. Brougham was a slight man, whom many years later ABC’s Keith Jackson would call “a jolly little elf.” But if he was jolly, he was also crafty. He was well acquainted with Ulbrickson’s perpetual solemnity, and he had his own names for the coach: sometimes he was the “Deadpan Kid,” sometimes the “Man with the Stone Face.” Now he peered up at Ulbrickson’s granitic face and began to pepper him with questions—probing, pestering questions—determined to find out what the Husky coach thought about the new crop of freshmen, all this “tall timber,” as Brougham put it. Ulbrickson remained quiet a long while, gazing at the boys on the ramp and squinting at the sunlight on the Cut. The temperature had climbed into the high seventies, unusually warm for an October afternoon in Seattle, and some of the new boys had taken off their shirts to soak up the sun. A few of them sauntered along the dock, bending over to hoist long, yellow-spruce oars, getting the feel of them, contemplating their considerable heft. In the golden afternoon light, the boys moved gracefully—lithe and fit, ready to take something on.
When Ulbrickson finally turned to Brougham and replied, it was with a single, none-too-helpful word: “Pleasing.”
Royal Brougham had come to know Al Ulbrickson pretty well, and he did a quick double take. There was something about the way Ulbrickson delivered the response, a note in his voice or a glint in his eye or a twitch at the corner of his mouth, that arrested Brougham’s attention. The following day he offered his readers this translation of Ulbrickson’s reply: “which in less guarded terms means … ‘very good indeed.’”
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Royal Brougham’s interest in what Al Ulbrickson was thinking was far from casual—much more than just a desire to fill out his daily column with yet another terse Ulbrickson quote. Brougham was on a quest—one of many he would launch in his sixty-eight-year career with the Post-Intelligencer.
Since he had started at the paper in 1910, Brougham had become something of a local legend, renowned for his uncanny ability to extract information from storied figures like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. His opinion, his connections, and his tenacity were so well regarded that he was quickly becoming something of a ringmaster of civic life in Seattle, sought out by grandees of all stripes—politicians, star athletes, university presidents, fight promoters, coaches, even bookies. But above all, Brougham was a masterful promoter. “Part poet, part P. T. Barnum,” Emmett Watson, another legendary Seattle scribe, called him. What he wanted to promote above all else was Seattle. He wanted to transform the world’s view of his gray, sleepy, logging-and-fishing town into something far grander and more sophisticated.
When Brougham first arrived at the Post-Intelligencer, Washington’s crew program had consisted of little more than a handful of rough-and-tumble country boys lurching around Lake Washington in leaky, tublike shells, coached by what appeared to many to be a red-haired lunatic named Hiram Conibear. In the intervening years, the program had advanced a great deal, but it still got little respect beyond the West Coast. Brougham figured the time was right to change all that. After all, for grandness and sophistication nothing could match a world-class rowing team. The sport reeked of classiness. And crew was a good way for a school, or a city, to get noticed.
In the 1920s and 1930s, collegiate crew was wildly popular, often ranking right up there with baseball and collegiate football in the amount of press it received and the crowds it drew. Outstanding oarsmen were lionized in the national press, even in the era of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Top sportswriters like Grantland Rice and the New York Times’s Robert Kelley covered all the major regattas. Millions of fans diligently followed their crews’ progress throughout the training and racing seasons, particularly in the East, where something as minor as a coxswain’s sore throat could make headlines. Eastern private schools, modeling themselves after elite British institutions like Eton, taught rowing as a gentleman’s sport and fed their young-gentlemen oarsmen into the nation’s most prestigious universities, places like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The most devoted fans even collected trading cards of their favorite crews.
By the 1920s western fans had begun to take a similar interest in their own crews—spurred on by a heated rivalry, which dated back to 1903, between two large public universities, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington. After years of struggling for funding and recognition even on their own campuses, the crew programs at both schools had finally begun to have occasional successes competing with their eastern counterparts. Recently crews from California had even won Olympic gold twice. Both schools could now count on tens of thousands of students, alumni, and excited citizens to turn out for their annual dual regattas in April, when they battled for preeminence in West Coast rowing. But western coaches were paid a fraction of what eastern coaches made, and western crews still rowed mostly against one another. Neither school had a penny for recruitment, nor virtually anything in the way of well-heeled patrons. Everyone knew that the center of gravity in American collegiate rowing still lay somewhere between Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, and Annapolis. Royal Brougham figured if it could somehow be shifted west, it might land squarely in Seattle and bring the city a lot of much-needed respect. He also knew that, given the way things were going, it might very well land in California instead.
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As Al Ulbrickson studied his new freshmen at the shell house in Seattle that afternoon, five thousand miles to the east, a thirty-nine-year-old architect named Werner March worked late into the night, hunched over a drafting table in an office somewhere in Berlin.
A few days before, on October 5, he and Adolf Hitler had stepped out of a black, armored Mercedes-Benz in the countryside west of Berlin. They were accompanied by Dr. Theodor Lewald, president of the German Olympic Organizing Committee, and Wilhelm Frick, Reich minister of the interior. The spot where they emerged from the car was slightly elevated, about a hundred feet higher than the heart of the city. To the west lay the ancient Grunewald forest, where sixteenth-century German princes hunted stags and wild boars and where Berliners of all classes nowadays enjoyed hiking, picnicking, and foraging for mushrooms. To the east, the ancient church spires and peaked rooflines of central Berlin rose above a sea of trees turned red and gold in the crisp autumn air.
They had come to inspect the old Deutsches Stadion, built in 1916 for the ill-fated Olympic Games of that year. Werner March’s father, Otto, had designed and overseen construction of the structure—the largest stadium in the world at the time—but the games had been canceled because of the Great War, the war that had so humiliated Germany. Now, under the younger March’s direction, the stadium was undergoing renovations in preparation for the 1936 Olympics, which Germany was to host.
Hitler had not originally wanted to host the games at all. Almost everything about the idea, in fact, had offended him. The year before, he had damned the games as the invention of “Jews and Freemasons.” The very heart of the Olympic ideal—that athletes of all nations and all races should commingle and compete on equal terms—was antithetical to his National Socialist Party’s core belief: that the Aryan people were manifestly superior to all others. And he was filled with revulsion by the notion that Jews, Negroes, and other vagabond races from around the world would come traipsing through Germany. But in the eight months since he had come to power in January, Hitler had begun to change his mind.
The man who, more than any other, was responsible for this transformation was Dr. Joseph Goebbels, minister of public enlightenment and propaganda. Goebbels—a particularly vicious anti-Semite who had engineered much of Hitler’s political rise—was now systematically dismantling what remained of a free press in Germany. Just over five feet tall, with a deformed and shortened right leg, a club foot, and an oddly shaped head that seemed too large for his small body, Goebbels did not look the part of a powerbroker, but he in fact was among the most important and influential members of Hitler’s inner circle. He was intelligent, articulate, and remarkably cunning. Many who knew him in social settings—among them, the American ambassador to Germany, William Dodd; his wife, Mattie; and his daughter, Martha—found him “delightful,” “infectious,” “one of the few men in Germany with a sense of humor.” He had a surprisingly compelling speaking voice for so small a man, an instrument that he wielded like a rapier when he addressed large crowds in person or spoke on the radio.
That very week he had assembled three hundred Berlin journalists to instruct them on the provisions of the Nazis’ new National Press Law. First and foremost, he had announced, to practice journalism in Germany one would henceforth have to do so as a licensed member of his press organization, the Reichsverband der Deutschen Presse, and no one would be licensed who had, or was married to someone who had, so much as one Jewish grandparent. As for editorial content, no one was to publish anything that was not consecrated by the party. Specifically, nothing was to be published that was “calculated to weaken the power of the Reich at home or abroad, the community will of the German people, its military spirit, or its culture and economy.” None of this should be any problem, Goebbels had calmly assured his audience of dumbstruck journalists that day: “I don’t see why you should have the slightest difficulty in adjusting the trend of what you write to the interests of the State. It is possible that the Government may sometimes be mistaken—as to individual measures—but it is absurd to suggest that anything superior to the Government might take its place. What is the use, therefore, of editorial skepticism? It can only make people uneasy.” But just to make sure, the same week, the new Nazi government had enacted a separate measure imposing the death penalty on those who published “treasonable articles.”
Goebbels had his sights set on far more than controlling the German press, however. Always attentive to new and better opportunities to shape the larger message emanating from Berlin, he had seen at once that hosting the Olympics would offer the Nazis a singular opportunity to portray Germany to the world as a civilized and modern state, a friendly but powerful nation that the larger world would do well to recognize and respect. And Hitler, as he listened to Goebbels, and knowing full well what he had planned for Germany in the days, months, and years ahead, had slowly begun to recognize the value in presenting a more attractive face to the world than his brown-shirted storm troopers and his black-shirted security forces had displayed thus far. At the very least, an Olympic interlude would help buy him time—time to convince the world of his peaceful intentions, even as he began to rebuild Germany’s military and industrial power for the titanic struggle to come.
Hitler had stood hatless at the Olympic site that afternoon, listening quietly as Werner March explained that the horse-racing track adjoining the old stadium prevented a major expansion. Glancing for a moment at the racetrack, Hitler made an announcement that astonished March. The racetrack must “disappear.” A vastly larger stadium was to be built, one that would hold at least a hundred thousand people. And more than that, there must be a massive surrounding sports complex to provide venues for a wide variety of competitions, a single, unified Reichssportfeld. “It will be the task of the nation,” Hitler said. It was to be a testament to German ingenuity, to its cultural superiority, and to its growing power. When the world assembled here, on this elevated ground overlooking Berlin, in 1936, it would behold the future not just of Germany but of Western civilization.
Five days later, Werner March, stooping over his drafting table, had only until morning before he must lay preliminary plans in front of Hitler.
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In Seattle, at about the same hour, Tom Bolles and his assistant coaches released the freshmen. The days were already beginning to grow short, and at 5:30 p.m. the sun sank behind Montlake Bridge just to the west of the shell house. The boys began to straggle back up the hill toward the main campus in small groups, shaking their heads, talking softly among themselves about their chances of making the team.
Al Ulbrickson stood on the floating dock, listening to the lake water lap at the shore, watching them go. Behind his implacable gaze, wheels were turning at an even faster rate than usual. To some extent he remained haunted by the more or less disastrous season of 1932. More than one hundred thousand people had turned out to view the annual contest between California and Washington, crowding along the shores of the lake. A strong wind was blowing by the time the main event, the varsity race, was set to start, and the lake was frothy with whitecaps. Almost as soon as the race got under way, the Washington boat had begun to ship water. By the halfway mark, the oarsmen in their sliding seats were sloshing back and forth in several inches of it. When the Washington boat neared the finish line, it was eighteen lengths behind Cal, and the only real question was whether it would sink before crossing. It stayed more or less afloat, but the outcome was the worst defeat in Washington’s history.
In June of that year, Ulbrickson’s varsity had attempted to redeem itself at the annual Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta in Poughkeepsie, New York, but Cal had trounced them again, by five lengths this time. Later in the summer, the Washington varsity had ventured to the Olympic trials at Lake Quinsigamond in Massachusetts, to try once more. This time they were eliminated in a preliminary contest. And to top things off, in August, in Los Angeles, Ulbrickson had watched his counterpart at Cal, Ky Ebright, win the sport’s most coveted award, an Olympic gold medal.
Ulbrickson’s boys had regrouped quickly. In April of 1933, a fresh and reconstituted varsity crew promptly exacted its revenge, sweeping the Olympic champion Cal Bears from their home waters on the Oakland Estuary. A week later, they did it again, defeating Cal and UCLA on a two-thousand-meter course in Long Beach, California. The 1933 Poughkeepsie Regatta had been canceled due to the Depression, but Washington returned to Long Beach that summer to race against the best crews the East had to offer: Yale, Cornell, and Harvard. Washington edged second-place Yale by eight feet to emerge as de facto national champion. That varsity crew, Ulbrickson told Esquire magazine, was by far the best he had ever put together. It had what newspapermen called “plenty of swift.” Given that recent history, and the promising look of some of the freshmen walking away from the shell house that evening, Ulbrickson had plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season.
But there remained one particularly galling fact of life. No Washington coach had ever even come close to going to the Olympics. With the bad blood that had lately arisen between the Washington and California crew programs, Cal’s two gold medals had been bitter pills to swallow. Ulbrickson was already looking forward to 1936. He wanted to bring gold home to Seattle more than he could say—certainly more than he would say.
To pull it off, Ulbrickson knew, he was going to have to clear a series of imposing hurdles. Despite his setbacks the previous year, Cal’s head coach Ky Ebright remained an extraordinarily wily opponent, widely regarded as the intellectual master of the sport. He possessed an uncanny knack for winning the big races, the ones that really counted. Ulbrickson needed to find a crew that could beat Ebright’s best and keep them beat in an Olympic year. Then he was going to have to find a way to again beat the elite eastern schools—particularly Cornell, Syracuse, Pennsylvania, and Columbia—at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta in Poughkeepsie in 1936. Then he might well have to face Yale, Harvard, or Princeton—schools that did not even deign to row at Poughkeepsie—at the Olympic trials. Yale, after all, had won gold in 1924. The eastern private rowing clubs, particularly the Pennsylvania Athletic Club and the New York Athletic Club, would also likely be in the mix at the 1936 trials. Finally, if he made it to Berlin, he would have to beat the best oarsmen in the world—probably British boys from Oxford and Cambridge, though the Germans were said to be building extraordinarily powerful and disciplined crews under the new Nazi system, and the Italians had very nearly taken the gold in 1932.
All that, Ulbrickson knew, had to start here on this dock, with the boys who were now wandering off into the waning light. Somewhere among them—those green and untested boys—lay much of the stock from which he would have to select a crew capable of going all the way. 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 master the details of technique. And which of them, coupled improbably with all those other qualities, had the most important one: 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.
Harry, Fred, Nellie, and Joe Rantz, circa 1917