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
Where is the spiritual value of rowing? … The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.
—George Yeoman Pocock
When they were sure that they had won, the boys rowed slowly past the grandstands to polite applause. Al Ulbrickson and George Pocock scrambled down from their balcony and began to shove their way through the crowds on the lawn in front of Haus West, desperately trying to get to their boys. Royal Brougham bolted for the press room and began to pound out the sports story of his career, pouring his heart into it, searching his soul for language that could begin to do justice to what he had just seen, unaware that the news writers’ guild back in Seattle had just thrown picket lines up around the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s offices. There would be no edition of the Post-Intelligencer in the morning, and his story would never see print. As Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras continued to capture it all, the boys pulled up to the float in front of Haus West. A few Nazi officers watched idly as an Olympic official reached down and shook Bobby Moch’s hand and presented Don Hume with an enormous laurel wreath, so large it looked as if it was designed to be worn by a horse rather than a man. Hume, embarrassed and not quite sure what he was supposed to do with it, lowered the wreath momentarily over his head, smiled sheepishly, and then handed it back to Joe, who did the same and handed it back to Shorty Hunt, and so on, all the way to Roger Morris in the bow. Al Ulbrickson arrived on the float breathless, crouched down by the boat, and found himself characteristically unable to find words. Finally, feigning indifference, he pointed to the wreath and grumbled to Roger Morris, “Where’d you get the hay?” Roger motioned over his shoulder with his thumb and said, “Picked it up downstream.”
The boys climbed out of the shell and stood at attention while a German band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then they shook some hands, hoisted the Husky Clipper onto their shoulders, and carried it back to the shell house, looking for all the world, in their dirty sweatshirts and mismatched shorts, as if they’d just come in from a workout on Lake Washington. A reporter from United Press buttonholed Al Ulbrickson on the way into the shell house and asked him what he thought of his boys. This time Ulbrickson found his voice. They were, he said unambiguously, “the finest I ever saw seated in a shell. And I’ve seen some corking boatloads.”
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Early the next morning, they returned to Grünau, where Leni Riefenstahl’s crew and international newsreel photographers were clamoring to film them. Riefenstahl had already captured good footage of the gold medal race, both from boats and from shore, but she wanted close-ups from the points of view of the victorious coxswain and the stroke. The boys agreed to row with a cameraman sitting first in Hume’s seat, then in Bobby Moch’s seat. The Italian and German crews made similar accommodations for her. The results were spectacular. The eight-oared rowing sequence is still among the most dramatic action scenes in Olympia. Riefenstahl cleverly intercut long shots of the progress of the boats with close-ups of Bobby Moch and the other coxswains barking commands point-blank into the camera. These, in turn, are intercut with close-ups of the stroke oarsmen grimacing with effort as they rock rhythmically back and forth, leaning into the camera and then back away again.
When the filming was over, the boys prepared the Husky Clipper for shipment back to Seattle, put on their Olympic dress uniforms again, and headed to the Reichssportfeld one more time, where they watched the gold medal soccer match between Austria and Italy. After the match, the boys took to the field themselves, to receive their medals. As they lined up next to the German and Italian crews, Olympic officials went down the American line, hanging gold medals around the boys’ necks and placing small laurel wreaths on their heads. Then Bobby Moch, the shortest among them, stepped up onto the highest platform on the podium. One of the boys behind him wisecracked, “You just wanted to win this thing so you could be taller than us for once, didn’t you?” Someone handed Moch a sapling oak tree in a pot. Their names suddenly appeared on the enormous, forty-three-foot-wide announcement board at the eastern end of the stadium. “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, and the American flag slowly ascended a flagstaff behind the announcement board. As Joe watched the flag rise with his hand over his heart, he was surprised to find that tears had crept into the corners of his eyes. On the podium Moch choked up too. So did Stub McMillin. By the time it was over, they were all fighting back tears, even Al Ulbrickson, the Dour Dane himself.
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That night the boys went out on the town, all except for Joe. At some point they got themselves into some kind of trouble, documented only obscurely in Chuck Day’s journal: “Talked ourselves out of a coupla places … cops, etc.” By four thirty that morning, they were stumbling through central Berlin, singing “Bow Down to Washington,” their arms draped over one another’s shoulders. It was ten thirty in the morning before they finally returned to Köpenick, nursing massive hangovers.
At the police academy, they found that Joe had been lying awake there all night. He had spent much of the night simply staring at his gold medal, contemplating it as it hung on the end of his bunk. As much as he had wanted it, and as much as he understood what it would mean to everyone back home and to the rest of the world, during the night he had come to realize that the medal wasn’t the most important thing he would take home from Germany.
Immediately after the race, even as he sat gasping for air in the Husky Clipper while it drifted down the Langer See beyond the finish line, an expansive sense of calm had enveloped him. In the last desperate few hundred meters of the race, in the searing pain and bewildering noise of that final furious sprint, there had come a singular moment when Joe realized with startling clarity that there was nothing more he could do to win the race, beyond what he was already doing. Except for one thing. He could finally abandon all doubt, trust absolutely without reservation that he and the boy in front of him and the boys behind him would all do precisely what they needed to do at precisely the instant they needed to do it. He had known in that instant that there could be no hesitation, no shred of indecision. He had had no choice but to throw himself into each stroke as if he were throwing himself off of a cliff into a void, with unquestioned faith that the others would be there to save him from catching the whole weight of the shell on his blade. And he had done it. Over and over, forty-four times per minute, he had hurled himself blindly into his future, not just believing but knowing that the other boys would be there for him, all of them, moment by precious moment.
In the white-hot emotional furnace of those final meters at Grünau, Joe and the boys had finally forged the prize they had sought all season, the prize Joe had sought nearly all his life.
Now he felt whole. He was ready to go home.
Joe with his young family