Daniel James Brown tells the compelling story of the US crew members who triumphed in the face of Nazi Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Daniel James Brown – author of Facing the Mountain – explains that the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games showcased Nazi power. The members of the US rowing team, by contrast, were underdogs who had become American varsity rowing champions. Brown offers a detailed, passionate account of the team’s challenges and triumphs as seen through the eyes of crew member Joe Rantz. Brown’s rich prose illuminates the sport’s beauty and the resilience of the young teammates who gave it their all.
USA Today said this New York Times number one bestseller provided, “Cogent history…and a surprisingly suspenseful tale of triumph.” Associated Press found it, “a riveting and inspiring saga.” And Bloomberg News called it, “A stirring tale of nine Depression-era athletes beating the odds and their inner demons.” Brown’s books The Indifferent Stars Above and Under a Flaming Sky were both finalists for the Washington State Book Award.
Teamwork and Trust
Brown wisely opens by contextualizing competitive rowing, which, as he details, demands oxygen and burns calories at a rate beyond any other sport. A rowing race demands the same physiological toll as playing two consecutive basketball games in about six minutes. Rowers experience excruciating pain.
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.Daniel James Brown
Brown clarifies that timing is crucial – rowers calibrate their strokes with their teammates’ strokes into one fluid motion. Each rower, he says, must become part of a machine, supported by the water while in contention with it.
Brown presents Joe Rantz’s Dickensian upbringing; his mother died when he was young, and his father abandoned him when he was 14. Brown says the young teen poached salmon, worked for bootleggers and busked with his banjo. When the University of Washington accepted him, he moved to Seattle with Joyce Simdars, his future wife.
Brown evokes with great power how Rantz and his crew teammates endured hunger, wind, endless rain, and occasional snow, ice and darkness. The author paints the crew members as similar to Rantz – raised in lumber towns, dairy farms and mining camps, they were upbeat, tough and strong.
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.Daniel James Brown
Brown depicts a surprising sports environment as prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s: Collegiate crew was as popular as collegiate baseball and football, especially in the East, where Yale, Harvard and Princeton regarded their elite rowing crews as gentlemen. Washington’s coach, Al Ulbrickson, “the Dour Dane,” was sparing with praise, but, as Brown makes clear, he commanded loyalty and respect.
Goebbels and Riefenstahl
Brown shifts to the compelling political backstory of the 1926 Olympics. Hitler, the author reports, regarded the games as the invention of “Jews and Freemasons.” In contrast, his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels saw the games as an opportunity to showcase German superiority. He hired German film director Leni Riefenstahl, who rebuffed Goebbels’s romantic attentions and became his rival for Hitler’s loyalty and affection. She also set out to make a significant film about the Olympics.
In 1935, Brown relates, Hitler changed the German flag to the swastika, and introduced a “Blood Law” stripping German Jews of citizenship; German rowing clubs purged their Jewish members.
Like so much in life, crew was partly about confidence, partly about knowing your own heart.Daniel James Brown
Brown contends that this led the United States to consider boycotting the games. But US Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage – whom Brown accurately characterizes as an anti-Semite in thrall to Hitler – said he found no discrimination against Jewish athletes.
At the US national rowing championships for college teams, University of Washington coach Ulbrickson designed what Brown characterizes as a risky strategy: Start slow, let the field burn itself out, then finish with a ferocious burst. Ulbrickson warned the rowers that they could not fall more than two boat lengths behind.
Washington had become the national champions and swept the Hudson. The varsity’s astounding come-from-behind victory that day was historic in its scope and drama.Daniel James Brown
But, Brown recounts, at one point, the crew trailed by four boat lengths. Rivals thought Rantz’s crew was spent. Brown stirringly focuses on the University of Washington coxswain driving the crew to victory by a full boat length over the University of California, its main rival.
Washington used the same technique, the author marvels, at the Olympic trials a few days later, beating California, the New York Athletic Club and Penn State to become the US Olympic contender.
Six/Tenths of a Second
Brown presents the US crew members as beings hocked by the reception they received in Germany. Thousands of spectators marveled at their height.
Hitler declared the Games officially open. Brown reminds readers that the 2,000-meter, eight-man crew race was the second-most-popular event, after track and field. Brown reports that the American stroke oarsman was sick, and officials assigned the crew the worst lane. They faced the most headwind, meaning harder work.
Each of them knew that a defining moment in his life was nearly at hand; none wanted to waste it.James Daniel Brown
Brown posits this race as extraordinary, as the Americans started slow and then astonished everyone by raising their stroke rate to 44 per minute, the hardest they had ever rowed. The US beat the Italians, Brown celebrates, by six-tenths of a second.
The West, while finding Germany’s Olympic spectacle impressive, became aware of its underpinnings: Nazi dreams of conquest. Riefenstahl’s film Olympia premiered in 1938 to international acclaim. Shortly thereafter, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. The time for games was over.
The story of the University of Washington rowing crew in the 1930s features all the elements of a great sports melodrama – clashes of class, politics, upbringing and strategies. The differences between the good guys and the bad guys could not be more clear-cut, nor is there any doubt about their relative moral worth. So this tale is ripe for clichés, yet somehow Brown avoids them all. He gained access to a ripping good yarn, and he presents it as such. This is old-fashioned athletic melodrama, right out of a Knute Rockne movie.
Brown prominently features a favorite American theme: that sports call on people to be heroic, subsume their ego and work together, thus providing spiritual uplift and patriotic pride. Only, in this yarn, that theme works. You would have to be cold-hearted indeed, or to see no value at all in athletic competition, not to find Brown’s tale suspenseful, moving and even inspirational about both teamwork and personal resilience.
Brown lets his real-life characters tell their stories in their own words. He crafts a truly fun read, chockfull of arcane detail, strategy and historical moments. He’s an evocative prose stylist with an eye for the telling detail and the ability to contextualize the larger world in which his heroes worked so hard. Brown doesn’t depend on patriotism to evoke emotion, though many lesser writers would exploit it in a heartbeat. You don’t have to care about rowing to find this saga – and Brown’s prose –stirring, memorable and even inspiring.
Those seeking other works on crew (and, in one case, crew at the Olympics) might enjoy Stephen Kiesling’s The Shell Game, Arshay Cooper’s A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team, and Daniel Boyne’s The Red Rose Crew. It has a foreword by a wonderful writer, the late David Halberstam, author of many political books (including The Best and the Brightest) and sports titles, including The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal.