The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part II. Resiliency 1934
My ambition has always been to be the greatest shell builder in the world; and without false modesty, I believe I have attained that goal. If I were to sell the [Boeing] stock, I fear I would lose my incentive and become a wealthy man, but a second-rate artisan. I prefer to remain a first-class artisan.
—George Yeoman Pocock
In January, Joe and Joyce returned to Seattle, where rain continued to fall almost every day. When crew practice started up again on January 8, Joe and the seventeen other boys in the first and second freshman boats learned that they were now entitled to abandon the shell barges and step for the first time into proper racing shells, the sleek and lovely cedar craft built by George Pocock in his loft workshop at the back of the Washington shell house.
They also learned that what had seemed a brutal workout schedule in the fall was merely a whisper of what Al Ulbrickson and Tom Bolles had in mind for them now. In the next few months, they were told, they would mostly race against one another and their junior varsity and varsity counterparts. After that they might race against the University of British Columbia or a handful of other Northwest crews. But the real racing season was short and the stakes high: In mid-April just one boatload of freshmen—whichever emerged as the first freshman boat—would face their primary rival, the University of California at Berkeley, right here on Lake Washington, in the annual Pacific Coast Regatta. If they prevailed in that race—and only if they did so—they could claim supremacy in the West. That would likely earn them a chance to race against Navy and the elite eastern schools for the national freshman championship in Poughkeepsie in June. And that was it. The whole season—nine months of preparation—came down to just two major races.
In his six years as freshman coach, Bolles had never coached a crew that had lost a race to California, or anyone else, on Lake Washington. Bolles didn’t intend for this bunch to be the first, no matter how good the Cal freshmen were reputed to be, and he happened to know that they were reputed to be very good indeed. Bolles knew, in fact, that Ky Ebright’s boys had been rowing since late August, and that he had been racing them against one another in real shells since late October, when the Washington freshmen had begun tentatively trying out the shell barges. Ebright, Bolles noticed, had been making more than the usual amount of noise in the Bay Area press lately about how thoroughly his freshmen were going to shellac Washington. From now until race day, Bolles told his boys, they would row six days a week, rain or shine.
It rained, and they rowed. They rowed through cutting wind, bitter sleet, and occasional snow, well into the dark of night every evening. They rowed with cold rainwater running down their backs, pooling in the bottom of the boat, and sloshing back and forth under their sliding seats. A local sportswriter who watched them work out that month observed that “it rained and rained and rained. Then it rained and rained and rained.” Another commented that they “could have turned their shells upside down and rowed without making much difference in their progress. It was nearly as wet above the surface of the lake as it was below.” Through it all, Bolles followed them doggedly back and forth across Lake Washington and down the Montlake Cut into Lake Union, where they rowed past the wet, black hulls and dripping bowsprits of old lumber schooners. Riding through the slop and the chop in the open cockpit of his brass-trimmed, mahogany-planked motor launch, the Alumnus, wearing a bright yellow rain slicker, he bellowed commands at them through his megaphone until his voice grew hoarse and his throat sore.
Once again boys who had endured the bitter cold workouts in October and November now placed their oars in racks at the end of the day, climbed wearily back up the hill, and refused to come back for more. Four boatloads soon became three, and by the end of the month Bolles sometimes had a hard time filling the third boat. All the boys in Joe’s boat stuck it out, but the easy camaraderie they had briefly felt the first time they went out together on Lake Union in November quickly evaporated. Anxiety, self-doubt, and bickering replaced that night’s buoyant optimism as Bolles scrutinized each of them anew, trying to figure out who to keep in the boat and who to demote.
Al Ulbrickson was working his upperclassmen just as hard, trying to settle on a first junior varsity and a first varsity boat to race against Cal in April and the eastern schools in June. But as soggy January wore on and gave way to a blustery February, he was decidedly unhappy with what he was seeing out on the water, particularly with his varsity. After every workout it was Ulbrickson’s habit to sit down in his office and make notations in a logbook. These private comments were more often far more expressive than those his reticent public persona allowed. Amid many entries grumbling about the weather, he grumbled even more about the lack of spirit in the older boys as he raced boatloads of them against one another. Increasingly, he littered the log with stinging commentary: “too many TOLO dates,” “too many gripers,” “not enough pepper,” “They could have been closer by wishing hard.”
On February 16, Ulbrickson finally found something he liked, but not where he’d been looking. Returning to the shell house that evening, the first varsity boat fell in alongside Tom Bolles’s first freshman boat, which was also returning. Still two miles out, the two crews began, on an impulse, to race for home. At first the freshmen stayed even with the varsity, rowing at the same stroke count. Ulbrickson wasn’t terribly surprised. He knew Bolles was working his freshmen hard. But both crews had been rowing for hours, and as he trailed them in his launch Ulbrickson waited for the younger, less experienced boys to fade. Instead of fading, though, a half mile from the shell house the freshmen suddenly began to pull ahead, grabbing a quarter-length lead. That got Ulbrickson’s attention. It also got the attention of Harvey Love, the coxswain in the varsity boat, who frantically called for a higher stroke rate. The varsity poured it on for the last thirty seconds, just managing to pull even with the freshmen as they reached the floating dock at the shell house. Ulbrickson’s acrid entry in his logbook that night read “First real work the varsity has done.”
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Six hundred and seventy miles to the south, on the Oakland Estuary—the University of California’s home water—Ky Ebright was facing remarkably similar problems. Only one of his 1932 Olympic gold medal crew still rowed for California, and his varsity lineup was turning in indifferent times at best. Ebright couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong. “They are just the right size and they have lots of power, but I just can’t see them winning,” he complained to the San Francisco Chronicle. To top things off, in recent weeks his freshmen had begun to beat his varsity in time trials and head-to-head races.
In a number of ways, Ky Ebright was the opposite of Al Ulbrickson. Ulbrickson, a former stroke oar—one of the best Washington had ever known—was tall, well built, and notably handsome. Ebright, a former coxswain, was short, skinny, bespectacled, and sharp of feature, with a prominent nose and a receding chin. Ulbrickson dressed conservatively, usually in his fedora and a three-piece flannel suit; Ebright wore flannel suits as well, but he was apt to pair them improbably with an old oilskin sou’wester or a wide-brimmed hat, the front of which he pushed up, making him look something like Gene Autry’s comedic sidekick, Smiley Burnette, or a younger version of Hopalong Cassidy’s equally comic sidekick, Gabby Hayes. Ulbrickson was reticent, often to the point of rudeness; Ebright was expressive, often also to the point of rudeness. One of his oarsmen, Buzz Schulte, recalled, “He yelled, goaded, teased, whatever it took to motivate his boys.” Prone to pounding his megaphone on the gunwales of his coaching launch in exasperation, he once hurled it at an oarsman who had caught a crab. The megaphone, not being particularly aerodynamic, missed its mark by a wide margin and landed in the lap of the coxswain, Don Blessing, who, irritated by the assault on his crewmate, nudged the megaphone over the side of the boat with his knee. As it sank into the depths, an enraged Ebright exploded, “Blessing! God damn you! That was an expensive megaphone. Why did you destroy it like that?”
As difficult as he could sometimes be, though, Ky Ebright, like Al Ulbrickson, was a remarkable coach—destined, like Ulbrickson, for rowing’s hall of fame—and he cared deeply for the young men in his charge. The night California won Olympic gold in Amsterdam in 1928, an emotional Ebright came to Blessing, put his arm around the younger man, and said with a cracking voice, “You know, Don, I cussed you a lot of times and made you mad a lot of times, but you’ve been the greatest coxswain, the greatest student, I’ve ever had, and I want you to know how much I appreciate that.” “It made me cry,” Blessing later said. “I mean, he was God to me.” It was a feeling shared by most of the boys Ebright coached, among them Robert McNamara, later the U.S. secretary of defense, and the movie star Gregory Peck, who in 1997 donated twenty-five thousand dollars to the Cal crew in Ebright’s memory.
Like Ulbrickson, Ebright grew up in Seattle, attended the University of Washington, and began his rowing life there in 1915, as coxswain. He once coxed a Washington crew to a humiliating fifteen-length shellacking of California. After graduating, he continued to hang around the Washington shell house, informally advising students and coaches and generally helping out. In 1923, when Washington’s head coach, Ed Leader, left to coach at Yale, Ebright was among the candidates eager to replace him, but Washington passed him over in favor of Russell “Rusty” Callow.
Shortly after that, Washington learned that California’s coach, Ben Wallis, was leaving Berkeley and that the school was on the verge of abandoning its crew program after years of less than stellar results. The board of stewards for rowing at Washington quickly took note. California had had a rowing team since 1868, making it one of the oldest crew programs in the country. Stanford had abandoned the sport in 1920. If Cal gave it up too, the stewards feared that Washington would have little justification for perpetuating its own program without a serious West Coast rival. But a solution seemed to be at hand: California wanted an effective coach, Ebright wanted a coaching job, Washington wanted a rival, and the upshot was that Ky Ebright became the head coach at California in February 1924, with the mission of rebuilding the school’s program. And that he did with a vengeance.
By 1927 the Cal program had improved to the point that Berkeley could reasonably contend with Washington for West Coast supremacy. Friction began to grow between the two programs. From the outset, some in the Washington shell house felt that by agreeing to go to Cal, Ebright had betrayed the institution that had nurtured him. Others felt, rightly or wrongly, that Ebright was bitter about not getting the job at Washington and was bent on evening a personal score. As California continued to improve, other issues surfaced, new resentments arose, and the relationship between the two programs deteriorated further. Before long, the rivalry between them had become, as Ebright later put it bluntly, “vicious and bloody.”
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Some of the bad blood centered, improbably, on the most gentlemanly of individuals in either shell house. Ky Ebright knew from his own days at Washington what the presence of George Pocock meant to the Washington crew program. And as he built his own program, he began to brood on it.
Part of his resentment involved suspicions about equipment. Like nearly every other crew coach in the country, Ebright was by the late 1920s buying almost all his equipment from Pocock, who ran an independent business from his shop in the Washington shell house. Pocock’s cedar shells and spruce oars were by now understood across America to be unsurpassed for craftsmanship, durability, and, most important, speed on the water. They were state-of-the-art, so elegant and streamlined that people liked to say they seemed to be in motion while still on the racks. By the mid-1930s, a Pocock eight-man shell would have the same market price as a brand-new LaSalle built by General Motors’ Cadillac division. But Ebright, reacting to rumors his father had heard, had come to suspect that Pocock was sending him second-rate or defective equipment in order to hobble Washington’s principal rival. He wrote angrily to Pocock about it: “He heard that you said the shell you hoped Washington would use was a great deal better than the one you made California this year.” Over the next few months, a series of increasingly unpleasant and accusatory letters from Berkeley arrived in Pocock’s mailbox. Each time, the Englishman responded politely and diplomatically, declaring that the equipment he sent to Cal was identical to that which he provided to Washington or anyone else on his list of customers: “You can take it from me that Washington would gladly swap boats with you,” he wrote. “Stamp out any thought among your men that they are getting shells from the enemy. Far from it. My work is absolutely first, then comes the broadening of the rowing game.” But Ebright remained suspicious, and he continued to lash out at Pocock: “It is the most natural thing in the world for our men to feel as I say they do—that they are getting their equipment from the enemy. It injures their morale and makes it hard for us to compete on even terms.”
In trying to deal with Ebright, Pocock found himself in a quandary. By 1931 the effects of the Depression had caused crew programs across the country to go out of existence or to cut back drastically on the purchase of equipment. As coveted as his shells were, Pocock had begun to find himself struggling to stay in business, reduced to writing plaintive letters to coaches around the country, pleading for orders. Ebright seemed eager to seize the opportunity to exact revenge for the wrongs he had imputed to Pocock. In his correspondence with the boatbuilder, he threatened to buy his equipment from an English supplier, demanded price concessions, and insisted on design modifications if he were to buy. Time and again Pocock explained that he was desperate for business but could not reduce prices: “No one who has ordered a boat this year has asked for it. They know they are worth it.” But Ebright only hardened his position: “You will not be able to get your old prices much longer, it will just be impossible to pay them … the goose that laid the golden egg is gone.”
What most seemed to get Ebright’s goat, though, when he thought about the Washington program, wasn’t the quality or price of the equipment he was receiving from Pocock; it was the quality of advice the Washington boys were receiving and his boys were not. Ebright knew that Pocock possessed deep insights into every aspect of the sport, into specific elements of technique as well as into the psychology of winning and losing at it, and he didn’t think Washington should have a monopoly on Pocock’s wisdom. When the two schools got together, it griped him to see the Englishman squatting on the dock and talking with the Washington boys or riding along in Ulbrickson’s launch, leaning over to him, whispering things in his ears. Somewhat bizarrely, given the geographical situation, he lashed out at Pocock, “I repeat that you have never gone out with our crew in a workout … you should ride with us and give us suggestions about rowing the same as you do for Washington.”
Pocock’s integrity, his craftsmanship, and above all his honor were his lifeblood. The letters stung. There was no logical reason why he owed California anything more than the quality equipment he continued to send them. And there was something else. When California had first approached Washington about a new head coach in the fall of 1923, it was George Pocock to whom they had first offered the job. Pocock thought he would be more valuable to the sport if he continued to build shells. It was he who had first recommended Ky Ebright.
Nonetheless, Pocock tried to smooth things out. Whenever the two schools met, he took to going out of his way to talk with the Cal boys. He helped them rig their shells before races. He made a point of chatting with the Cal coaching staff, offering tips. But Ebright’s lashing out at Pocock had not gone unnoticed in the Washington shell house, and by 1934 relations between the two programs could not have been any more strained.
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By mid-spring Tom Bolles found himself struggling daily with the freshmen, and the trend seemed to be going the wrong way. “They seem to be getting slower every day,” a dour and subdued Bolles complained.
One of the fundamental challenges in rowing is that when any one member of a crew goes into a slump the entire crew goes with him. A baseball team or a basketball team may very well triumph even if its star player is off his game. But the demands of rowing are such that every man or woman in a racing shell depends on his or her crewmates to perform almost flawlessly with each and every pull of the oar. The movements of each rower are so intimately intertwined, so precisely synchronized with the movements of all the others, that any one rower’s mistake or subpar performance can throw off the tempo of the stroke, the balance of the boat, and ultimately the success of the whole crew. More often than not, it comes down to a lack of concentration on one person’s part.
For just this reason, as they struggled to regain their form the Washington freshmen came up with a mantra that their coxswain, George Morry, chanted as they rowed. Morry shouted, “M-I-B, M-I-B, M-I-B!” over and over to the rhythm of their stroke. The initialism stood for “mind in boat.” It was meant as a reminder that from the time an oarsman steps into a racing shell until the moment that the boat crosses the finish line, he must keep his mind focused on what is happening inside the boat. His whole world must shrink down to the small space within the gunwales. He must maintain a singular focus on the rower just ahead of him and the voice of the coxswain calling out commands. Nothing outside the boat—not the boat in the next lane over, not the cheering of a crowd of spectators, not last night’s date—can enter the successful oarsman’s mind. But no amount of chanting “M-I-B” seemed to be working for the freshmen. Bolles decided he needed to tinker with the fundamentals of the boat, the mechanics of what made it go—or not go.
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By and large, every rower in an eight-oared shell does the same thing—pull an oar through the water as smoothly as possible, as hard and as frequently as requested by the coxswain. But there are subtle differences in what is expected of individual rowers depending on which seat they occupy. Because the rest of the boat necessarily goes where the bow goes, any deflection or irregularity in the stroke of the oarsman in the bow seat has the greatest potential to disrupt the course, speed, and stability of the boat. So while the bow oarsman must be strong, like all the others, it’s most important that he or she be technically proficient: capable of pulling a perfect oar, stroke after stroke, without fail. The same is true to a lesser extent of the rowers in the number two and three seats. The four, five, and six seats are often called “the engine room” of the crew, and the rowers who occupy these seats are typically the biggest and strongest in the boat. While technique is still important in those seats, the speed of the boat ultimately depends on the raw power of these rowers and how efficiently they transmit it through their oars and into the water. The rower in the number seven seat is something of a hybrid. He or she must be nearly as strong as the rowers in the engine room but must also be particularly alert, constantly aware of and in tune with what is happening in the rest of the boat. He or she must precisely match both the timing and the degree of power set by the rower in the number eight seat, the “stroke oar,” and must transmit that information efficiently back into the boat’s engine room. The stroke sits directly in front of and face-to-face with the coxswain, who faces the bow and steers the shell. Theoretically the stroke oar always rows at the rate and with the degree of power called for by the coxswain, but in the end it is the stroke who ultimately controls these things. Everyone else in the boat rows at the rate and power at which the stroke rows. When working well, the entire boat operates like a well-lubricated machine, with every rower serving as a vital link in a chain that powers that machine forward, somewhat like a bicycle chain.
To break the freshmen’s slump, Bolles had to search vigilantly for and repair weak links in the chain. One potential weak link that spring seemed to be Joe Rantz. Bolles had tried moving Joe back and forth between the number three seat and number seven, but with no effect. The problem looked to be technical. From the beginning of freshman tryouts the previous fall, Bolles had not been able to get Joe to “square up” consistently—to rotate his oar so that the blade was perpendicular to the surface just before inserting it into the water on the catch, the beginning of each stroke. If the blade entered the water at any angle other than ninety degrees, the amount of power generated by the subsequent stroke would be compromised and the efficiency of the whole boat reduced. Squaring up required strong wrists and a fine degree of motor control, and Joe just couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. Beyond that, his stroke was generally eccentric. He rowed powerfully but decidedly in his own way, and by any conventional measure his own way looked to be largely ineffective.
In exasperation, Bolles yanked Joe out of the first boat one afternoon before the outbound trip down Lake Washington. The boat slowed down perceptibly. Perplexed, Bolles put Joe back into the boat for the return run. Racing for home, Joe and the reconstituted first boat beat the second boat by a decisive margin. Bolles was flummoxed. Maybe the problem wasn’t in Rantz’s wrist. Maybe it was in his head.
For Joe, the incident, brief as it was, provided a sudden and cold reminder of how precarious his position on the crew, and therefore his attendance at the university, really was. A few days later, on March 20, when a Post-Intelligencer article proclaimed, “Rantz is getting the call at number 3,” Joe cut out the article, pasted it in a scrapbook he had just begun keeping, and penned in next to it, “Am I a sure bet? Look what the PI says. Can’t be too sure, though.” Everything he had worked for could be over on any given afternoon.
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It didn’t help that he continued to feel like everyone’s poor cousin. With the weather remaining cool, he still had to wear his ragged sweater to practice almost every day, and the boys still teased him continuously for it.
They found new and fertile grounds for mirth at his expense one evening when a group of them noticed Joe eating a meal in the cafeteria. Joe had piled his plate high with meat loaf and potatoes and creamed corn. He attacked the food with his knife and fork, working at it vigorously, shoveling it into his mouth. The moment he had cleared his plate he turned to the boy next to him, asked him for his leftover meat loaf, and devoured it just as rapidly.
Over the noise of the cafeteria, he didn’t notice that someone had come up behind him. Nor did he hear the snickering. When he finally paused and looked up, he saw a smirk on the face of the boy across the table from him. Following his gaze, he turned around to find half a dozen fellows from the shell house standing in a semicircle, holding their dirty plates out to him, grins smeared across their faces. Joe paused, startled and humiliated, but then, with his ears growing red, he turned around, put his head down, and resumed eating—forking the food into his mouth like hay into a barn, his jaw working methodically, his eyes set and cold and defiant. He was hungry nearly all the time, and he wasn’t about to walk away from perfectly good food because of a bunch of jackasses in jerseys. He’d dug too many ditches, cut down too many cottonwoods, foraged in the cold, wet woods for too many berries and mushrooms.
By the end of March, the slump appeared to be over. The freshman time trials were improving again as Bolles finally seemed to be zeroing in on the right mix of boys and seating assignments. On April 2, with Joe still sitting in the number three seat, Bolles put the clock to them. That night Joe went home and wrote in his scrapbook, “Two miles: 10:36. Gotta take eight seconds off to be the fastest frosh crew ever!!!”
For much of the rest of that week, it was too windy to row, but on April 6 the winds died down, and Ulbrickson decided to pit the varsity, junior varsity, and freshman crews against one another on Lake Washington. It was the perfect opportunity to get all three crews out on the water and see whether the wind delay had affected their performance.
As a handicap, Ulbrickson positioned the junior varsity, which had not thus far shown much promise, three boat lengths out in front of the other two boats at the start. He told the freshman crew to pull up and end its race at the two-mile mark, the standard distance for freshman races. That would allow the coaches to get a final and accurate readout on their time under racing conditions before the confrontation with Cal. The varsity and junior varsity were to continue racing to the three-mile mark.
Ulbrickson lined the boats up and barked, “Ready all … row!” through his megaphone. Harvey Love, the varsity coxswain, was talking and missed the signal. The freshmen immediately leapt out a half boat length ahead of the older boys. All three boats fell into a moderately high stroke rate, and for a mile they all held their rates and their relative positions—the junior varsity still three lengths out in front in their handicap position, the freshmen second, and the bow of the varsity boat locked in place, half a length back, alongside the freshman boat’s number five seat. Then, slowly, the varsity’s bow fell back to the six seat, the seven seat, the stroke seat, and finally the coxswain’s seat. By the mile-and-a-half mark, the freshmen had opened a sliver of water between the rear of their boat and the varsity’s bow, and they were beginning to close on the junior varsity out front. They had not raised their stroke rate a bit. With a quarter mile to go, sensing he had both boats where he wanted them, knowing his crew had plenty left in the tank, coxswain George Morry told the freshmen to kick the stroke rate up a couple of notches, and they surged past the junior varsity and into the overall lead. At the two-mile mark, Morry barked out, “Way ’nuff,” and now two full lengths ahead of both other boats, the freshmen pulled up, let their oars ride the water, and coasted to a stop. As the other two boats finally passed them, the freshman boys raised a lusty cheer and pumped their fists in the air.
Bolles looked down at his stopwatch, saw the freshmen’s two-mile time, and looked again. He had known they were getting sharp, but now he knew in no uncertain terms that he had the makings of something exceptional in his boat. What he didn’t know was whether California had something even more exceptional, as Ky Ebright seemed to be hinting in the press. That would be revealed a week hence, on April 13. In the meantime, he resolved to keep the time on his stopwatch to himself.
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There are certain laws of physics by which all crew coaches live and die. The speed of a racing shell is determined primarily by two factors: the power produced by the combined strokes of the oars, and the stroke rate, the number of strokes the crew takes each minute. So if two boats carrying the same weight have the exact same stroke rate, the one producing more power per stroke will pull ahead. If those two boats have the exact same power per stroke but one has a higher stroke rate, the one with the higher rate will pull ahead. A boat with both a very high stroke rate and very powerful strokes will beat a boat that can’t match it on both counts. But, of course, oarsmen are human and no crew can maintain both powerful strokes and a very high rate indefinitely. And, critically, the higher the stroke rate, the harder it is to keep all the many individual movements of the crew synchronized. So every race is a balancing act, a series of delicate and deliberate adjustments of power on one hand and stroke rate on the other. It may be that nobody ever achieves absolutely optimal performance, but what Bolles had seen that day—his crew rowing so comfortably at a high but sustainable rate and with such great power—gave him every reason to think that someday these freshmen just might pull it off.
And it wasn’t just their physical prowess. He liked the character of these particular freshmen. The boys who had made it this far were rugged and optimistic in a way that seemed emblematic of their western roots. They were the genuine article, mostly the products of lumber towns, dairy farms, mining camps, fishing boats, and shipyards. They looked, they walked, and they talked as if they had spent most of their lives out of doors. Despite the hard times and their pinched circumstances, they smiled easily and openly. They extended calloused hands eagerly to strangers. They looked you in the eye, not as a challenge, but as an invitation. They joshed you at the drop of a hat. They looked at impediments and saw opportunities. All that, Bolles knew, added up to a lot of potential in a crew, particularly if that crew got a chance to row in the East.
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That same evening, at the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot in Oakland, Ky Ebright loaded his crews and his racing shells aboard the Cascade and headed north to Seattle.
Ebright knew that it had been windy in the Northwest, and he had been fretting to the Bay Area press about his boys’ lack of experience with rough water. He was all too familiar with the whims of Lake Washington, from his coxswain days, and the weather on the Oakland Estuary had been typically but frustratingly calm and pleasant. So when windy conditions resumed shortly after California arrived in Seattle, Ebright wasted no time. On April 10 he hustled all three of his crews out onto the frothy lake to see what they could do among the whitecaps. As it turned out, they could do plenty, particularly the freshmen. The Cal frosh fairly skimmed over the water, their oars coming well clear of the waves between strokes and digging cleanly into them on the catch at the beginning of each stroke. They turned in a series of fine time trials, though Ebright declined to make those times available to the press. The outing confirmed what Ebright and his freshman coach, Russ Nagler, another former Washington coxswain, had been hinting for some time now: that their freshmen might be the best they had ever coached, better even than the boys who had gone on to produce an Olympic gold medal in 1932. When a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle asked him, on April 6, what he thought of his freshmen’s prospects, the Cal coach answered with surprising candor: “Ebright took on a radiant look and boomed out, ‘Our frosh boat will beat the stuffing out of the Husky yearlings.’”
Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson had read that account, and now they watched California’s workout from shore with apparent concern. They had taken their own boys out the same day, with the press and Ebright looking on, only to have the freshmen turn back after a mile, their rowing conspicuously lethargic and their shell half full of water from the heavy chop. Bolles had returned gloomily to the dock and gone atypically out of his way to approach the sportswriters assembled at the shell house, giving them a terse but bleak forecast for the freshmen: “It looks as if we’ll be rowing from behind.”
Misdirection was part of the game. It was easy enough to rig a shell so the oars sat a little too close to the water and easy enough to pull a leisurely oar but make it look hard. When Bolles’s quote appeared in the newspaper the next day, Joe cut it out, pasted it in his scrapbook, and wrote next to it, “Coach said Cal had their necks out a foot. He is giving out pessimistic reports so that they will stick them out farther. Makes them easier to cut off.”
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Race day, Friday, April 13, was one of those rare spring days in Seattle when cotton-puff clouds drift across robin’s-egg-blue skies and afternoon temperatures climb into the midseventies.
At 11:00 a.m. a student-chartered ferry left Colman Dock in downtown Seattle and headed through the locks in Ballard en route to Lake Washington. Early in the afternoon, it arrived at the university’s Oceanographic Dock, where Joyce Simdars joined fourteen hundred other boisterous students dressed in purple and gold as they piled aboard, accompanied by the blaring brass and rattling drums of the university’s varsity band playing fight songs. As the ferry pulled away from the dock, the band switched over to jazz tunes and some of the students poured out onto an upper deck and began to dance.
Joyce settled down on a bench on the foredeck, sipping coffee in the sun, looking forward to watching Joe race and seeing him afterward, however it turned out. She couldn’t help but be nervous, though. She knew how much Joe wanted to succeed at crew, how much depended on it for the two of them. In order to root him on, she had taken a rare afternoon off from her live-in job at the judge’s house in Laurelhurst. She detested the job as much as she had expected. It was the kind of housework she had always loathed. She was required to wear a ridiculous uniform and creep around the house as quietly as a mouse, lest she disturb the judge in his seemingly endless and sacrosanct deliberations. Between that, studying for her classes, and the unusually long, wet winter, she had grown wan and pale and sometimes depressed, so she luxuriated in the fresh air and bright sunlight on the ferry.
As the boat rounded the Laurelhurst light and headed north, it hugged the west shore of the lake. People on private docks, backyard decks, and grassy slopes all along the western lakeshore spread out blankets, popped open bottles of cold beer or Coca-Cola, pulled lunches out of picnic hampers, snapped open peanuts and popped them in their mouths, and tested out their binoculars. Here and there, on slender patches of beach, shirtless young men tossed footballs back and forth. Young women in modest one-piece bathing suits with frilled skirts splashed in the water or stretched out on warm sand, waiting.
At the northern end of the lake, hundreds of pleasure craft were converging on the same spot. Sleek white sailboats, burnished mahogany-hulled launches, stately yachts trimmed in teak and brass, and humble skiffs and rowboats were already crowding together and dropping anchor, forming an enormous semicircle of boats off Sheridan Beach, just past the barge on which the finish line for the races was marked by a large black arrow pointing down at the water. A coast guard vessel patrolled the racing lanes, her crew sounding a siren and barking orders through megaphones, keeping the lanes clear of small craft.
Joyce got up from her bench and maneuvered herself to a position along the railing, crowding in among other students. She was, she resolved, going to stay calm no matter what.
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A few miles to the south, another two thousand fans dressed in purple and gold clambered aboard an observation train at the Northern Pacific Railway’s University Station. More than seven hundred of them shelled out two dollars apiece to sit in nine special open-sided viewing cars; the rest paid a dollar fifty for regular coach seats. As each race of the day went off, the train would run north along the western shore of Lake Washington, paralleling the racecourse all the way from Sand Point to the finish line at Sheridan Beach, then returning to the starting line before the next race. All told, nearly eighty thousand Seattleites—far more than Washington’s football stadium could hold—had taken an early start to a gorgeous weekend and come out to watch the races.
Farther to the south, in the Bay Area, much of the public’s attention was focused that afternoon on a massive federal manhunt for the fugitive John Dillinger, whom someone claimed to have seen, eating lunch in a San Jose café, the day before. But shortly before 3:00 p.m., thousands of fans around the bay spun their radio dials away from the news broadcasts to listen to coverage of the race up in Seattle, on the Columbia Broadcasting System’s radio network.
The Washington and California freshman crews paddled briskly out toward the starting line off Sand Point. They would race first, for a distance of two miles, followed at hourly intervals by the junior varsity and the varsity, each racing for three miles. Joe Rantz sat in the number three seat of Washington’s boat; Roger Morris sat in the number seven seat. Both were nervous, as were all the boys. Warm as it was onshore, a moderately stiff north breeze had sprung up out in midlake, and they would be rowing directly into it. That would slow their time and perhaps cramp their style. More than that, though, they were hard up against the fact that a few minutes of extreme exertion were about to tell them whether five and a half months of training had been worthwhile. During those few minutes, each of them would take more than three hundred strokes. With eight oarsmen in the boat, oars would have to enter and exit the water cleanly more than twenty-four hundred times. If just one boy muffed just one of those strokes—if just one of them caught one crab—the race would effectively be over, and none of them would have a chance to travel to New York in June to race against the best crews in the East for the national championship. Joe surveyed the crowd assembled along the shoreline. He wondered whether Joyce was half as nervous as he was.
At 3:00 p.m., in a light chop, the freshmen maneuvered their shell parallel to California’s, did their best to settle their minds into the boat, and waited for the start signal. Tom Bolles maneuvered his coaching launch up behind his boys’ boat. He was wearing an unusually battered fedora—the brim drooping, the crown riddled with moth holes. He’d picked it up secondhand back in 1930, had come to think of it as his lucky hat, and wore it now for every race.
The band on the ferryboat stopped playing. The students stopped dancing and crowded the near rails, the great boat listing slightly toward the racing lanes. The engineer on the observation train laid a hand on the throttle. Thousands along the shoreline raised binoculars to their eyes. The starter called out, “Ready all!” The Washington boys slid their seats forward, sank their white blades into the water, hunched over their oars, and stared straight ahead. George Morry, Washington’s coxswain, raised his right arm to signal that his boat was ready. Grover Clark, the Cal coxswain, clenching a whistle between his teeth, did the same. The starter barked, “Row!”
California exploded off the line, lashing the water at a furious thirty-eight strokes per minute. The silver prow of their shell immediately surged a quarter length ahead of Washington’s. Having seized the lead, Cal dropped its rate down a bit, to a more sustainable thirty-two, and Grover Clark began blowing his whistle in time with the stroke count. Washington settled in at thirty but held its position at a quarter length back. The two boats churned up the lake for almost a quarter of a mile, locked together in that configuration—Washington’s white blades glinting in the sunlight, Cal’s flashing shards of blue. Sitting in the number three seat, Joe Rantz was parallel with roughly the six or seven seat in the California boat; in the seven seat, Roger Morris was parallel with nothing but open water. All the boys had their minds fully in the boat now. Facing the stern, the only thing any of them could see was the heaving back of the man in front of him. None had any idea how far ahead Cal’s initial surge might have carried them. George Morry, facing forward, knew exactly. He could see Grover Clark’s backside in front of him, but he continued to hold Washington steady at thirty strokes per minute.
As they passed the quarter-mile mark, the two boats slowly came even. Then Washington began to overtake California, methodically, seat by seat, the boys still rowing at a remarkably low thirty. By the one-mile mark, Washington had open water on Cal. As the California boat fell into the field of view of the Washington boys, their confidence surged. The pain that had been building in their arms and legs and chests did not abate, but it fled to the backs of their minds, chased there by a sense, almost, of invulnerability.
In the Cal boat, Grover Clark pulled the whistle from his mouth and screamed out, “Gimme ten big ones!”—the standard call in rowing for ten mammoth strokes, strokes as hard and powerful as each oarsman can muster. The California oars bent like bows with the strain, and for those ten strokes the boys from Cal held their position. But Washington remained out in front, their lead—almost two lengths now—essentially undiminished. At the mile-and-a-half mark, Clark called for another big ten, but by now Cal’s boys had given everything they had to give, and Washington’s boys hadn’t. As they entered the last half mile and came into the lee of the hills at the north end of the lake, the headwind died down. Cheers began to rise from the semicircle of boats ahead, from the beaches, from the observation train working its way along the shore, and—loudest of all—from the ferryboat chock-full of students. The California boat labored to catch up, Grover Clark’s whistle now shrieking like an out-of-control steam locomotive. Approaching the line and already ahead by four lengths, George Morry finally called for a higher stroke rate. The Washington boys stepped it up to thirty-two and then all the way to thirty-six, just because they knew they could. Washington sliced across the finish line four and a half lengths ahead of California, and almost twenty seconds ahead of the freshman course record, despite the headwind.
Shrill horns and cheers resounded all along the shores of Lake Washington. The Washington freshmen paddled over to the California boat and collected the traditional trophy of victorious crews everywhere—the shirts off the backs of their vanquished rivals. They shook hands with the crestfallen and shirtless Cal boys and then, exultant, paddled off the course to stow their shell. Tom Bolles cheerily loaded them onto the Alumnus, then transported them to the student ferry.
Joe, clutching a California jersey, bounded up the steps to the upper deck, beaming, looking around for Joyce. At five foot four, she was hard to find in the crowd that surged forward to congratulate the boys. Joyce had seen him, though. She worked her way through the mass of close-pressed bodies, slipping through small openings, pressing an elbow here, gently shoving against a hip there, until she finally emerged before Joe, who promptly leaned over, enveloped her in an exuberant and sweaty hug, and lifted her off her feet.
A crowd of students ushered the crew into the boat’s galley and sat them down at a table piled with a mountain of ice cream, as much as they could eat, courtesy of the Associated Students of the University of Washington. Joe stuffed himself, as he always did when presented with free food, or any sort of food for that matter. When he’d finally had his fill, he took Joyce’s hand and pulled her back out onto the deck where the band was again playing loud, brassy dance tunes. Joe, sun bronzed and barefoot in his jersey and shorts, took Joyce, slight and slender in a frilly white summer dress, and twirled her once under his long, outstretched arm. And then they danced, the two of them careening around the deck, swinging, smiling, laughing, giddy for now under a blue Seattle sky.
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That same day, in a posh Berlin neighborhood near the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph and Magda Goebbels welcomed a new daughter into the world—a little brown-haired girl they named Hildegard. They nicknamed her Hilde, but her father soon began to call her his “little mouse.” She was the second of what would become six Goebbels children, all of whom Magda Goebbels would order murdered with cyanide eleven years later.
Life was going swimmingly for Reich minister Goebbels that spring. The old Olympic stadium was being torn down, and Werner March had drawn up elaborate plans for the vast complex that would replace it for the 1936 games—plans that fit the scope of Hitler’s ambitions and Goebbels’s propaganda objectives. The Reichssportfeld would sprawl over more than 325 acres.
In January and February, in anticipation of the games, Goebbels had formed organizing committees at the propaganda ministry. There were committees for the press, radio, film, transportation, public art, and the budget, each charged with separate responsibilities for extracting the maximum propaganda value from the games. No opportunity was to be overlooked, nothing taken for granted. Everything from how the foreign media would be treated to how the city would be decorated would be subject to rigorous planning. At one of those meetings, one of Goebbels’s ministers had proposed an entirely new idea—a potent bit of imagery designed to underscore what the Third Reich saw as its ancestral roots in ancient Greece—a torch relay to carry a flame from Olympia in Greece all the way to Berlin.
Meanwhile Goebbels’s work of eliminating any Jewish or otherwise “objectionable” influence from the cultural life of Germany continued inexorably. Since the great bonfires of May 10, 1933, when university students in Berlin, urged on by Goebbels himself, had burned some twenty thousand books—books by, among others, Albert Einstein, Erich Maria Remarque, Thomas Mann, Jack London, H. G. Wells, and Helen Keller—he had been unrelenting in his drive to “purify” German art, music, theater, literature, radio, education, athletics, and film. Jewish actors, writers, performers, teachers, civil servants, lawyers, and doctors had all been forced from their occupations and deprived of their livelihoods, either by the enactment of new laws or by the application of terror at the hands of the Nazis’ brown-shirted paramilitary storm troopers, the Sturmabteilung, or SA.
The German film industry had become one of Goebbels’s particular interests. He was intrigued by the propaganda potential of motion pictures and ruthless in suppressing any ideas, images, or themes in them that did not conform to the emerging Nazi mythos. To ensure compliance, the film department of the propaganda ministry now directly oversaw the planning and production of all new German films. Goebbels himself—a failed novelist and playwright earlier in life—had taken to reviewing the scripts of nearly all films personally, using a green pencil to strike out or rewrite offending lines or scenes.
Beyond the pragmatic propaganda value of film, Goebbels was also personally enthralled by the glamour of the movie business, and particularly by the allure of German stars who lit up the silver screen in Berlin’s cinemas. Because German actors, actresses, producers, and directors were now all beholden to him for their careers, they began to flock around Goebbels, fawning over him and soliciting his favor.
The previous June, Hitler had awarded Goebbels a sumptuous personal residence on the recently renamed Hermann-Göring-Strasse, just a block south of the Brandenburg Gate. Goebbels had promptly remodeled and expanded the house—the hundred-year-old former palace of the marshals of the Prussian court—to make it even grander than it had been. He had added a second story, installed a private cinema, built heated greenhouses, and laid out formal gardens. With an essentially unlimited budget, Magda Goebbels had furnished and decorated it extravagantly—covering the walls with Gobelin tapestries and paintings appropriated from German museums, laying down luxurious carpets, even installing a commode previously owned by Frederick the Great. Thus brought up to the Goebbels’s standards, the house served as a venue for both intimate soirees and grand dinner parties for the Nazi elite and those who basked in their light.
Among those who flocked to the house at number 20 Hermann-Göring-Strasse, certain young starlets were of particular interest to Goebbels. A number of them soon found that attending to his erotic desires, despite his dwarfish stature and misshapen physique, went a long way toward enhancing their career prospects. Others he cultivated for their genuine capabilities on the screen, and for the sense of aggrandizement that he derived from associating with them.
One particular young woman who sometimes showed up at the Goebbels house that spring, and who belonged to the second category, was an increasingly close friend of Adolf Hitler and a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Before all was said and done, she would, in fact, become the woman in Germany who more than any other would materially shape the destiny of the Nazi movement.
Leni Riefenstahl was beautiful and brilliant. She knew what she wanted and how to get it. And what she wanted above all was to be at the center of things, in the spotlight, basking in applause.
From her earliest years, she displayed an indomitable will to succeed. When she decided to become a dancer at seventeen, she disregarded all conventional wisdom, which preached that dancers must begin their training as young children. By her early twenties, she was dancing professionally before packed houses all over Germany, drawing rave reviews. When an injury ended her dance career, she turned to acting. She quickly talked her way into a lead role and became an instant star with her first film, The Holy Mountain (Der heilige Berg). It was characteristic of Riefenstahl that even as she starred in a succession of similar films her ambitions continued to mount. Increasingly unwilling to cede creative control to anyone, in 1931 she founded her own production company and set about—very precociously for a woman in the 1930s—writing, producing, directing, editing, and starring in a film of her own.
Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl
The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht), released in 1932, was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. A sort of mystical fairy tale, it romanticized and celebrated the simple life of German farmers living harmoniously with nature on their German soil. It condemned the corruption of the modern industrial world. By implication it also condemned intellectuals. It quickly won international acclaim and ran for weeks in London and Paris.
In Germany the response was more tepid, but Adolf Hitler was transported by The Blue Light, seeing in it a visual and artistic representation of the very “blood and soil” ideology on which his Nazi Party had been founded—the notion that the nation’s strength lay in its simple, pure native stock. Hitler had been aware of Riefenstahl for some time, but now he became her friend. In 1933, at his personal request, she directed a one-hour propaganda film, Victory of Faith (Der Sieg des Glaubens), documenting the Nazi Party rally that year in Nuremberg. She made the film on short notice, had technical difficulties, and was not pleased with the results, but Hitler remained impressed by her work nonetheless. Now he hoped that in the fall she would produce a more ambitious film about the 1934 Nuremberg Rally.
As her star continued to rise in the months ahead, Riefenstahl and Goebbels frequently came into conflict. Goebbels would grow bitterly jealous of her influence with Hitler and the immunity it gave her from his own authority. And yet, by her account, he was also drawn to her and would pursue her romantically and sexually. In time this oddly matched pair would play a large role in defining how the world viewed the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and, by extension, the very nature of the new Nazi state.
But for now hers was simply one of the swirl of glamorous faces who drifted in and out of Joseph and Magda Goebbels’s stately home, popping the corks from champagne bottles, being feted by their host and hostess, celebrating one another and their youth and their good looks, dancing late into the night, singing, watching films, and talking of racial purity while little Hilde Goebbels lay asleep in a cradle in a darkened room upstairs.
Joe with his banjo