Book Review – The Boys In The Boat

Jannine Myers

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The Boys In The Boat is an account of the US rowing team’s victory at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Nothing to do with running, I know, but it’s a story nevertheless about athletic accomplishment that will inspire you from start to finish.

One of those “hard-to-put-down” reads, this book effortlessly captures the reader, provoking an instant sense of connection with both the characters and the setting. Much like Laura Hillenbrand did in her books, Seabiscuit and Unbroken, Daniel James Brown also delivers a triumphant story of hope against all odds, only this time the odds are overcome by a team of boys, who once introduced, you can’t help but root for.

Interspersed throughout the story are background snippets of a dark and grim reality going on behind the scenes, in Berlin, Germany. Brown provides just enough details to paint a clear picture of the level of grand deception orchestrated by Hitler, and his close associate, Joseph Goebells (Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945). While the boys (from Washington State) were busy working hard to earn the coveted privilege of representing the United States at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler and Goebbels were also hard at work – concealing the extent of Nazi persecution against Jews and other inferior groups.

At the core of the story, is Joe Rantz, one of the members of the 1936 US Olympic rowing team. His strong resolve and humble demeanor make him a true hero. But as the story evolves, it becomes clear that his teammates are equally heroic, each possessing the same positive attributes and incredible will to persevere when most would give up.

The highlight of the story is obviously towards the end of the book, as Brown recounts the dramatic events leading up to the final race and then describes in vivid detail the race itself. It really is a remarkable story, backed by extensive research that makes it well worth the read. I give it 5 stars.

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Extra Observations: Some things about the boys that I believe gave them a competitive edge:

1. They trained through the harshest of weather conditions, understanding that extreme discomfort was at times necessary if there was to be any hope at all of making it to the Olympics. A missed day of training meant an extra day of training for a competing team.

“They rowed 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.”

2. Some of the boys came from particularly challenging backgrounds, yet they approached life – in general – with optimism and hope. That type of attitude carried over to the obstacles they faced, including all those presented during their many months of grueling workouts.

Joe Rantz, for example, had an uncanny knack for finding four-leaf clovers (it’s much easier to find the more common three-leaf clover). He told his girlfriend, “The only time you don’t find a four-leaf clover, is when you stop looking for one.” Joe spent much of his childhood just trying to survive, but he never let his circumstances cheat him of hope and optimism.

3. George Pocock, designer and builder of racing shells, played a pivotal role in leading the team to victory. He taught the boys many things, including the concept that once they stepped into their racing shell, they needed to leave everything else behind. These boys learned to be “fully in the moment” during races; able to keep their minds one hundred percent focused on the goal at hand.

“…..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.” George Pocock

4. The boys followed strict rules imposed upon them by their coach, Al Ulbrickson. They were tempted at times to break those rules, and on a few occasions they did, but for the most part they respected the necessary disciplines required of them.

“You will eat no fried meats, “ he began abruptly. “You will eat no pastries, but you will eat plenty of vegetables. You will eat good, substantial, wholesome food…..You will go to bed at 10 o’clock and arise punctually at seven o’clock. You will not smoke or drink or chew. And you will follow this regimen all year round, for as long as you row for me. A man cannot abuse his body for six months and then expect to row the other six months. He must be a total abstainer all year.” Coach Al Ulbrickson

5. Finally, in the days leading up to the biggest race of their careers, the boys were all nervous and all dealing with some level of fear and self-doubt. They each centered and calmed themselves in their own ways: a couple of boys took long walks along the seashore and skipped stones, a few journaled or wrote letters home, one or two simply rested and reflected, and they all quoted their mentor, George Pocock.

Whether we realize it or not, part of the tapering process for runners should include a “centering and calming” routine too – a tried and true method that is applied in the days and hours leading up to race day.

So, five things that matter: 

  • Train, train, and train – no excuses.
  • Feed your mind positive thoughts and don’t allow room for negative ones.
  • When the starter gun goes, it’s time to narrow your focus and zone in on your race goal.
  • Optimal performance requires optimal nutrition, sleep, and lifestyle habits – not just some of the time, but all of the time.
  • Tapering is a necessary part of pre-race preparation – not only does the body need to be rejuvenated, but the mind does too.