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
Every good rowing coach, in his own way, imparts to his men the kind of self-discipline required to achieve the ultimate from mind, heart, and body. Which is why most ex-oarsmen will tell you they learned more fundamentally important lessons in the racing shell than in the classroom.
—George Yeoman Pocock
Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body, despite the fact that a rower, as Al Ulbrickson liked to put it, “scrimmages on his posterior annex.” And rowing makes these muscular demands not at odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite. On one occasion, after watching the Washington freshmen practice, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Royal Brougham marveled at the relentlessness of the sport: “Nobody ever took time out in a boat race,” he noted. “There’s no place to stop and get a satisfying drink of water or a lungful of cool, invigorating air. You just keep your eyes glued on the red, perspiring neck of the fellow ahead of you and row until they tell you it’s all over … Neighbor, it’s no game for a softy.”
When you row, the major muscles in your arms, legs, and back—particularly the quadriceps, triceps, biceps, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, abdominals, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles—do most of the grunt work, propelling the boat forward against the unrelenting resistance of water and wind. At the same time, scores of smaller muscles in the neck, wrists, hands, and even feet continually fine-tune your efforts, holding the body in constant equipoise in order to maintain the exquisite balance necessary to keep a twenty-four-inch-wide vessel—roughly the width of a man’s waist—on an even keel. The result of all this muscular effort, on both the larger scale and the smaller, is that your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any other human endeavor. Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race—the Olympic standard—takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.
A well-conditioned oarsman or oarswoman competing at the highest levels must be able to take in and consume as much as eight liters of oxygen per minute; an average male is capable of taking in roughly four to five liters at most. Pound for pound, Olympic oarsmen may take in and process as much oxygen as a thoroughbred racehorse. This extraordinary rate of oxygen intake is of only so much value, it should be noted. While 75-80 percent of the energy a rower produces in a two-thousand-meter race is aerobic energy fueled by oxygen, races always begin, and usually end, with hard sprints. These sprints require levels of energy production that far exceed the body’s capacity to produce aerobic energy, regardless of oxygen intake. Instead the body must immediately produce anaerobic energy. This, in turn, produces large quantities of lactic acid, and that acid rapidly builds up in the tissue of the muscles. The consequence is that the muscles often begin to scream in agony almost from the outset of a race and continue screaming until the very end.
And it’s not only the muscles that scream. The skeletal system to which all those muscles are attached also undergoes tremendous strains and stresses. Without proper training and conditioning—and sometimes even with them—competitive rowers are apt to experience a wide variety of ills in the knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, ribs, neck, and above all the spine. These injuries and complaints range from blisters to severe tendonitis, bursitis, slipped vertebrae, rotator cuff dysfunction, and stress fractures, particularly fractures of the ribs.
The common denominator in all these conditions—whether in the lungs, the muscles, or the bones—is overwhelming pain. And that is perhaps the first and most fundamental thing that all novice oarsmen must learn about competitive rowing in the upper echelons of the sport: that pain is part and parcel of the deal. It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.
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All this soon became potently evident to Joe Rantz and the other boys trying out for the University of Washington’s freshman crew in the fall of 1933.
Every afternoon, after classes, Joe made the long trek down to the shell house. He donned his jersey and shorts. He weighed in, a daily ritual. The weigh-ins were designed, on the one hand, to remind the boys that every extra ounce that went into the boat needed to be justified in terms of power produced and, on the other hand, to make sure the boys weren’t overtraining and dropping below their optimal weight. Joe checked a chalkboard to see which crew he was assigned to for the day and then joined the crowd of boys gathered on the wooden ramp in front of the shell house, to hear what Coach Bolles had to say before practice began.
In those first weeks, Bolles’s topic varied each day, depending on factors as unpredictable as the Seattle weather or what particular infelicities of technique he had noticed in the previous practice. Joe soon noted that two larger and intertwined themes inevitably came up in these talks. The boys heard time and again that the course they had chosen to embark on was difficult almost beyond imagining, that both their bodies and their moral characters would be tested in the months ahead, that only a very few of them who possessed near superhuman physical endurance and mental toughness would prove good enough to wear a W on their chests, and that by Christmas break most of them would have given up, perhaps to play something less physically and intellectually demanding, like football. But Bolles sometimes spoke of life-transforming experiences. He held out the prospect of becoming part of something larger than themselves, of finding in themselves something they did not yet know they possessed, of growing from boyhood to manhood. At times he dropped his voice a bit and shifted his tone and cadence and talked of near mystical moments on the water—moments of pride, elation, and deep affection for one’s fellow oarsmen, moments they would remember, cherish, and recount to their grandchildren when they were old men. Moments, even, that would bring them nearer to God.
Occasionally, as Bolles spoke with them, the boys noticed a figure standing in the background, watching quietly and listening intently. A man in his early forties, tall like nearly everyone on the boat ramp, he wore horn-rimmed spectacles behind which lurked sharp, penetrating eyes. His forehead was high and he sported an odd haircut—his dark, wavy hair was long on top but cropped high over his ears and around behind his head so his ears looked overlarge and he seemed to be wearing a bowl atop his head. Almost invariably he wore a carpenter’s apron covered with red sawdust and curls of cedar shavings. He spoke with a crisp British accent, an upper-crust accent, the kind of voice you might hear at Oxford or Cambridge. Many of the boys knew that his name was George Pocock and that he built racing shells in the loft of their shell house, not just for Washington, but for rowing programs across the country. None of them, though, yet knew that much of what they had just heard Bolles say—the very heart and soul of it—had its origins in the quiet philosophy and deep musings of the Briton.
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George Yeoman Pocock was all but born with an oar in his hands. He came into the world at Kingston upon Thames on March 23, 1891, within sight of some of the finest rowing water in the world. He was descended from a long line of boatbuilders. His paternal grandfather had made his living handcrafting rowboats for the professional watermen who plied the Thames in London, providing water-taxi and ferry services as their predecessors had done for centuries.
Since early in the eighteenth century, the London watermen had also made a sport of racing their dories in impromptu competitions. They were rough-and-tumble events. The friends of competitors sometimes maneuvered large boats or barges into their opponents’ paths or positioned themselves on bridges over the racecourse in order to drop heavy stones into their opponents’ boats as they passed underneath. Since 1715, the most skilled of the watermen had also held a much more genteel event, an annual race from London Bridge to Chelsea, in which the prize was the right to wear a spectacularly colorful and utterly British bit of regalia: a bright-crimson coat with a silver badge nearly the size of a dinner plate sewn on the left arm, matching crimson knee britches, and white knee-high hosiery. To this day, the race, Doggett’s Coat and Badge, is still rowed on the Thames each July amid much ceremony and grandeur.
Pocock’s maternal grandfather also worked in the boatbuilding trade, designing and constructing a wide variety of small craft, among them the Lady Alice, the custom-built sectional boat that Sir Henry Stanley used to search for Dr. David Livingstone in Central Africa in 1874. His uncle Bill had built the first keel-less shell, in his boatbuilding shop under London Bridge. His father, Aaron, had taken up the trade as well, building racing shells for Eton College, where gentlemen’s sons had been rowing competitively since the 1790s. And it was in Eton’s ancient boathouse, just across the river from the looming eminence of Windsor Castle, that George had grown up. At the age of fifteen, he signed papers formally apprenticing himself to his father, and for the next six years he worked side by side with him, laboring with hand tools to maintain and add to Eton’s prodigious fleet of racing shells.
But George didn’t just build boats; he also learned to row them, and to row them very well. He carefully studied the rowing style of the Thames watermen—a style characterized by short but powerful strokes with a quick catch and a quick release—and adapted it to the purpose of racing in a shell. The style he developed soon proved to be in many ways superior to the traditional longer stroke taught at Eton. Messing about on the Thames after formal practice, the aristocratic Eton boys discovered that George and his brother, Dick, although their social inferiors, could be counted on to leave them in their wakes time and again. It wasn’t long before the Pocock boys found themselves giving informal rowing lessons to the likes of the young Anthony Eden, to Prince Prajadipok of Siam, and to Lord Grosvenor, son of the Duke of Westminster.
George Pocock, in turn, learned something from the highborn Eton lads. He was inclined by nature to do whatever he attempted on the highest possible level—to master each and every tool he laid hands on in his father’s shop, to learn how to row the most efficient stroke, to build the most elegant and best-performing racing shells possible. Now, feeling the sting of British class distinctions, pondering the difference between how he and his father spoke and how they were spoken to, he decided to put in the effort to learn to speak, not with his natural cockney accent, but with the crisp “educated” accent of the boys they served. And, to almost everyone’s amazement, he did it. His crisp voice soon stood out in the boathouse, not as an affectation but as a point of pride and a demonstration of his deep commitment to grace, precision, and what would turn out to be a lifelong pursuit of the ideal.
Impressed by George’s perseverance, and by his ability on the water, Aaron Pocock entered him in a professional race, the Sportsman Handicap, at Putney on the Thames, when he was seventeen. He told his son he could build his own boat for the contest from scrap lumber in the Eton boathouse and gave him some advice that George never forgot: “No one will ask you how long it took to build; they will only ask who built it.” So George took his time, carefully and meticulously handcrafting a single sculling shell from Norwegian pine and mahogany. At Putney he slipped his boat into the water, leaned deep into his oars, and over the course of three heats defeated a field of fifty-eight oarsmen. He came home with a small fortune: fifty pounds in prize money. Shortly thereafter, George’s brother, Dick, one-upped him, winning the biggest of rowing prizes, the nearly two-hundred-year-old Doggett’s Coat and Badge itself.
George was just going into training for his own shot at the Doggett’s Coat and Badge when, late in 1910, his father abruptly lost his job at Eton, discharged because he had developed a reputation for being too easy on the men who worked for him. Suddenly without means, his father began casting around for boatbuilding work on the London waterfront. George and Dick, not wanting to be a burden on their father, abruptly decided to emigrate to western Canada, where they had heard it was possible to make as much as ten pounds a week working in the woods. They packed their clothes and a few boatbuilding tools, used their winnings from their races to book passage in steerage to Halifax, aboard the steamship Tunisian, and set sail from Liverpool.
Two weeks later, on March 11, 1911, after crossing Canada by rail, the Pococks arrived in Vancouver, with forty Canadian dollars between them. Filthy, dazed, and hungry, they wandered on foot from the train station to Vancouver’s brick downtown in a cold, dismal rain. It was George’s twentieth birthday. Dick was a year older. Set suddenly and unexpectedly adrift in the world, uncertain of what they would do next, both were ill at ease in what seemed to them a primitive frontier town utterly unlike the staid but comfortable environs of Eton. Though still in the King’s dominions, they felt as if they had landed on another planet. They finally found a dingy room in a building downtown, rented it for eighteen dollars a week, and immediately went out looking for work. With only two weeks’ rent money in their pockets, they tried their hands at whatever they could find. Dick worked as a carpenter at the local “bughouse,” a mental hospital in nearby Coquitlam. George went to work in a logging camp on the Adams River outside Vancouver, where he soon found himself scrambling madly up and down a mountain, trying to satisfy a steam donkey’s mechanically relentless appetite for firewood and water. After a month of frantically sawing wood and lugging tin pails of water up from the river two at a time, he quit and returned to Vancouver, where he got a relatively cushy job working in the shipyards—one in which he did not have to work quite at the pace of a steam engine. But it was grim, dangerous work that soon cost him two of his fingers.
In 1912 things started looking up for the Pocock boys. The Vancouver Rowing Club, hearing of their reputation in England, commissioned them to build two single sculls for one hundred dollars apiece. The Pococks set up shop in an old, derelict shed floating on timbers fifty yards offshore in Coal Harbour and then finally resumed what would be their life’s work—crafting fine racing shells. They set to work tirelessly in their shop downstairs, stopping only at night, to sleep in an unheated room above the shop.
Conditions were not ideal. Daylight showed through the roof, and wind and rain shuddered through wide gaps between the wallboards. To bathe, they had to dive out their bedroom window and into the cold salt chuck of the harbor. For drinking water, they had to row over to a public fountain in Stanley Park. From time to time, the shed slipped its anchor and drifted aimlessly among inbound and outbound ocean liners while the Pococks slept. At low tide the shed sat on a sloping mud bank, listing twenty-five degrees from bow to stern. When the tide surged back in, the waterlogged timbers on which the structure was built weighed it down and held it fast to the mud. George later described the daily routine: “The water would rise in the shop while we took refuge in the room above and tried to estimate when the next act of the drama would occur. Eventually, with a swish and a roar, the logs would break the mud’s hold, and up would come the building, like a surfacing submarine, with the water rushing out the doors at each end. Then we could start working again, until the next change of tide.” The brothers completed the work nonetheless, and as word of their craftsmanship spread across Canada they began to get new commissions. By mid-1912 the two of them—just twenty and twenty-one—were beginning to feel that they had their feet under them.
One blustery gray day, George Pocock looked out the window of the floating workshop and saw a gangly and awkward man with a shock of reddish but graying hair flying in the wind, rowing as if he were all elbows and knees. He flailed at his oars, George noted, “like a bewildered crab.” The fellow was apparently trying to reach them, though he seemed to be making little progress in that direction. The rowing was so awkward and ineffective, in fact, that the Pococks concluded the man must be drunk. Eventually they found a boathook, snagged the man’s boat, and dragged it alongside the workshop. When they warily helped him aboard, he grinned, stuck out a large hand, and boomed out, “My name is Hiram Conibear. I am the rowing coach at the University of Washington.”
Conibear—who would come to be called the father of Washington rowing—had become Washington’s coach because nobody else was available to take the job, not because he knew the first thing about rowing. He had been a professional bicycle rider at a time when as many as eight men might mount a single multiseated bicycle and careen around rough dirt racetracks in wild melees that often ended in spectacular and bloody collisions. He had moved on to become an athletic trainer for collegiate football and track-and-field teams and, most recently, the athletic trainer for the world champion Chicago White Sox in 1906. When he arrived at Washington in 1907, as coach of the track team and athletic trainer for the football team, his only rowing experience was four weeks in the summer of 1905 when he had trained on a four-oared barge on Lake Chautauqua in New York. Nevertheless, in 1908 he stepped into the position of crew coach more or less by default, replacing a pair of part-time volunteers.
Conibear was, according to those who knew him well, “simple, direct, and fearless.” He attacked his new job with characteristic gusto—what George Pocock later called “inflammable enthusiasm.” Lacking a coach’s launch, he ran up and down the shores of Lake Washington, yelling at his boys through his megaphone, freely mixing baseball slang with rowing terminology and a wide variety of exuberant profanity. He cussed so loudly, so frequently, and so colorfully that offended lakeside residents soon began complaining to the university. Convinced that rowing instruction needed to be more scientific, he pored over anatomy books and physics texts. Then he appropriated a human skeleton from the biology lab, strapped it in a rowing seat, wired its hands to a broom handle, and carefully observed its movements as his student-assistants manipulated it to simulate various rowing strokes. Once he was convinced that he was on the right track with the mechanics of the sport, he turned his focus to the boats themselves. Washington had relied on home-built shells, many of which were notably tubby and slow, some of which had a tendency to fall apart when rowed hard, and one of which was so round bottomed and prone to tip over that Homer Kirby, stroke oar of the 1908 crew, said if you wanted to keep her on an even keel, you had to part your hair in the middle and divide your chewing tobacco evenly between your cheeks.
What Conibear wanted now was the kind of shells they made in England: long, sleek, elegant shells. Fast shells. When he learned that a pair of English boatbuilders had taken up residence just to the north, in Vancouver, he set out in search of them.
When he found their floating shop in Coal Harbour, he told the Pococks that he planned to establish a veritable rowing navy. He needed to purchase a fleet, perhaps as many as fifty, but certainly no fewer than twelve, eight-oared shells. He wanted the Pococks to move down to Seattle forthwith, where he would provide them with a shop on campus—a dry shop on terra firma—in which to build the fleet.
Stunned, but delighted at the size of the potential order, the Pococks visited Seattle, and then wired their father in England, telling him to make haste to Washington, as they had found work enough for the three of them. Only after Aaron was on his way across the Atlantic did George and Dick receive a sobering letter from Conibear. He had spoken a bit prematurely, it seemed. He had only enough funds, it turned out, to buy one shell, not twelve. When told of the setback, Aaron responded to his sons dryly, “You must remember that Mr. Conibear is an American.”
Despite the radically lowered expectations, the Pococks were soon ensconced on the Washington campus, and Hiram Conibear began to realize that he had hired much more than a skilled boatbuilder in George Pocock. When George began to watch the Washington oarsmen on the water, he quickly spotted inefficiencies and deficiencies in the mechanics of their stroke that no amount of fiddling with a skeleton could fix. At first he held his peace, not inclined by nature to offer unsolicited advice. But when Conibear began to ask the Pococks for their opinion about his boys’ rowing, George gradually spoke up. He began to teach Conibear elements of the stroke that he had learned from Thames watermen in his boyhood and taught to the boys at Eton. Conibear listened eagerly, learned quickly, and what came to be called the “Conibear stroke” soon evolved from those discussions. It featured a shorter layback, a quicker catch, and a shorter but more powerful pull in the water. It left the oarsmen sitting more upright at the end of the stroke, ready to slide forward and begin the next stroke more quickly and with less fuss and bother. It differed conspicuously from the rowing stroke long used by the eastern schools (and Eton), with its exaggerated layback and long recovery, and it began almost immediately to result in Washington’s first significant victories. Before long, even the eastern schools were taking note of the Conibear stroke, trying to figure out how something so unorthodox could be so successful.
Conibear died just a few years later, in 1917, when he climbed too far out on a limb, while reaching for a plum in a tree in his backyard, and plunged headfirst to the ground. By then, however, Washington had become a serious contender in crew on the West Coast, a worthy opponent for Stanford and California and British Columbia, if not yet quite what Conibear had dreamed of making the program: “the Cornell of the Pacific.”
After the Great War, Dick Pocock moved east to build shells for Yale University, while George remained in Seattle and orders for his exquisitely crafted shells began to pour in from around the country. Over the next several decades, a succession of Washington coaches and crews came to learn that the Englishman quietly at work up in the loft of their shell house had much to teach them about rowing. They came to see him as something new under the sun, what in modern parlance might be termed a rowing “geek.” His understanding of the details of the sport—the physics of water, wood, and wind; the biomechanics of muscle and bone—was unmatched.
But Pocock’s influence didn’t end with his command of the technical side of the sport. It really only began there. Over the years, as he saw successive classes of oarsmen come and go, as he watched immensely powerful and proud boys strive to master the vexing subtleties of their sport, as he studied them and worked with them and counseled them and heard them declare their dreams and confess their shortcomings, George Pocock learned much about the hearts and souls of young men. He learned to see hope where a boy thought there was no hope, to see skill where skill was obscured by ego or by anxiety. He observed the fragility of confidence and the redemptive power of trust. He detected the strength of the gossamer threads of affection that sometimes grew between a pair of young men or among a boatload of them striving honestly to do their best. And he came to understand how those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing—a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy. It was a rare thing, a sacred thing, a thing devoutly to be hoped for. And in the years since coming to Washington, George Pocock had quietly become its high priest.
Years later a Washington coxswain would sum up the sentiment of hundreds of boys who felt his influence: “In his presence Washington crewmen always stood, for he symbolized that for which God’s children always stand.”
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Each day, after Tom Bolles finished talking and George Pocock made his way back up into his shop, the boys wrestled the long, white-bladed oars from their racks, carried them down to the water, and prepared to row. They were not remotely ready to step into the delicate confines of a racing shell, so they waited turns to board the school’s venerable training barge, Old Nero. The vessel—a wide, flat-bottomed scow with a long walkway running down the middle and seats for sixteen novice oarsmen—had served as an initial proving ground for freshmen since 1907, virtually the whole of the thirty years that Washington had maintained a crew program.
As the freshmen of 1933 flailed at their oars in the first few days, Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson strode up and down Old Nero’s walkway in gray flannel suits and fedoras. Ulbrickson mostly just watched the boys quietly, still sizing them up. Bolles, however, barked at them continuously—to grip the oar this way and not that, to square their blades to the water, to straighten their backs, to bend their knees, to straighten their knees, to pull harder one moment, to ease up another. It was bewildering and backbreaking. Old Nero was designed, in part, to drive boys who, by temperament, weren’t cut out for crew—“mollycoddles,” Ulbrickson called them—to an early realization of that fact, before they could break expensive oars and racing shells. The boys strained and heaved and gasped for breath, but for all their efforts they moved Old Nero only slowly and erratically out of the Cut and onto the ruffled expanse of Lake Washington. As they tried to absorb their lessons and experience, and to synchronize their efforts, they lived in constant fear of making any of the many egregious errors Bolles kept pointing out to them.
One error in particular required no scolding. They soon learned that if the blades of their oars entered the water too deeply, at the wrong angle, or out of time with the others, or if they remained in the water a fraction of a second too long at the end of a stroke, they were apt to “catch a crab”: the oar would suddenly and irretrievably become stuck in the water, immobilized as surely as if some sort of gargantuan crustacean had reached up from the depths and seized the blade, holding it fast. Old Nero would keep going but the oar would not. The boy holding the oar would either be smacked hard in the chest and knocked out of his seat or, if he held on to the oar too long, be catapulted unceremoniously into the water. Every stroke he took thus offered each boy the possibility of a wet, cold, and spectacularly public form of humiliation.
Of the whole freshman lot, the only one who had ever rowed a lick in his life was Roger Morris. Before the Depression, the Morris family had maintained a small, rustic cabin on the western side of Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound. As a boy Roger had idled away his summers rowing lazily about in Manzanita Bay, a lovely blue cove lying in the lee of the Olympic Mountains. But he was tall and strong and, when he wished to, Roger could go pretty much as far as he wanted to in that rowboat, a fact he had demonstrated one day when he was twelve. Suffering from a toothache and wanting to return to the comforts of his family home in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, he rowed some fifteen miles—north through Agate Passage, six miles southeast across the relatively open water of Puget Sound, among freighters and ferries, then east through the Ballard Locks, where he wedged his small rowboat in among salmon trawlers and tugboats and rafts of logs, and finally through Salmon Bay—before walking into the house to the utter astonishment of his mother. But aboard Old Nero, Roger quickly found that his freewheeling rowing style was more hindrance than help when it came to mastering the racing stroke that Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson taught in the 1930s.
None of the freshmen, in fact, found it easy to master it. To achieve even a reasonably smooth and powerful stroke, they had to learn to execute a series of precisely timed and carefully coordinated moves. Facing the stern of the boat, each boy began with his chest bent over his knees, his arms stretched out in front of him, and both hands gripping the handle of his one long oar. At the beginning of the stroke, the “catch,” he dropped the blade of his oar into the water and leaned his torso back hard, toward the bow, keeping his back ramrod straight. As his shoulders came vertical over the center of his body, he began the “leg drive” by propelling his legs forward, his seat sliding toward the bow on greased runners beneath him. Simultaneously, he pulled the oar toward his chest against the resistance of the water, throwing all the strength of his combined arm, back, and leg muscles into the stroke. As the oar came to his chest, and with his back inclined about fifteen degrees toward the bow, he reached the full extent of his “layback.” Then he began the “release.” He dropped his hands toward his waist and pulled the blade quickly and decisively from the water while at the same time rolling the wrist of the hand nearest the water in order to “feather” the blade parallel to the surface of the water. Next, to begin the “recovery,” he rotated his shoulders forward and pushed his arms sternward against the oar while pulling his knees up toward his chest, thus propelling his body forward on the sliders back into the crouched position in which he had begun. Finally, as the boat moved forward beneath him, he again rotated the oar to bring the blade perpendicular to the surface for the next catch, dropped it cleanly back into the water at precisely the same moment as the other boys, and immediately repeated the entire procedure over and over again at whatever rate the coxswain was calling for through the small megaphone strapped on his head. Done correctly, this process levered the boat forward in the water smoothly and powerfully. But it had to be done in one continuous and unbroken cycle of uncoiling and coiling the body. It had to be done rapidly, and it had to be done in precisely the same manner—at the same rate and with the same amount of applied power—as everyone else in the boat was doing it. It was maddeningly difficult, as if eight men standing on a floating log that threatened to roll over whenever they moved had to hit eight golf balls at exactly the same moment, with exactly the same amount of force, directing the ball to exactly the same point on a green, and doing so over and over, every two or three seconds.
The workouts went on for three hours every afternoon, and as the days grew shorter they stretched into the dark and increasingly chilly October evenings. By the time the boys came in off the water each night, their hands were blistered and bleeding, their arms and legs throbbed, their backs ached, and they were soaked through and through with a clammy mixture of sweat and lake water. They racked their oars, hung their rowing clothes up to dry in a steam-heated locker in the shell house, dressed, and began the long trudge back up the hill to campus.
Each evening, Joe Rantz noted with mounting satisfaction, there were fewer boys making the climb. And he noted something else. The first to drop out had been the boys with impeccably creased trousers and freshly polished oxfords. At a time when images of successful oarsmen appeared on the covers of Life and the Saturday Evening Post, varsity crew had seemed to many of them to be a way to build up their social status, to become big men on campus. But they had not reckoned on the sport’s extreme physical and psychological demands. As Joe made his way down to the shell house every afternoon, he saw more and more familiar boys—boys who had abandoned their boats—lounging on the grass in front of Suzzallo Library, casting him quick glances as he passed. The hurting was taking its toll, and that was just fine with Joe. Hurting was nothing new to him.