Friday, July 25

The Boys in the Boat

Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW2234, available at:
If you like to read even a little, and you naturally root for the underdog, then have I got a great book to recommend: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown.  Yes, it’s true that it’s non-fiction and that you know the ending before you begin (but, then, so did the millions who went to see the film, Titanic, which had a much less uplifting close, and which still managed to trigger tears for many viewers who already knew what was coming!)
Having finished a great read on the flight out (In One Person. By John Irving), I asked my Santa Barbara innkeeper for directions to a bookstore.  Chaucer’s was the now-too-rare bookstore where the staff is eager to share in an unhurried manner what they’ve recently read and loved.  I ended up carrying an extra bag to accommodate my winnowed down selections.
Like most Americans my age, I knew the Jesse Owens story well, but was unfamiliar with much of the context within which his victory occurred—and certainly was unfamiliar with the story of America’s Gold Medal in rowing, the second most popular sport in the world at that time.  As their gripping story unfolds, the rag-tag team from Washington State brings us with them through the many hurdles they had to overcome to get to the Olympics and win the Gold.  In the process, we also learn about the America of their day, boatbuilding, the rise of Hitler and a host of fascinating subjects cleverly woven in.

The theme of my work for 30 years has been Purpose and Harmony.  The English immigrant who built the winning racing shell, George Pocock, was also a great coach to coaches, emphasizing those very themes at every opportunity:  “Harmony, balance, and rhythm.  They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life.  Without them civilization is out of whack.  And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life.  That’s what he gets from rowing.”
There is something that happens in all great teams when its members merge into something larger and greater, performing collectively as one.  The author describes when this occurs in rowing:
There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define.  Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it.  Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called “swing.”  It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any is out of synch with those of all the others.  It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant.  Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once.  Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other.  Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars.  Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own.  Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation.  Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language.  Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.

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