26 June 2013

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

  • Book about the University of Washington rowing 8's quest for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (the Jesse Owens/Hitler games).
  • This outstanding book ticks all the boxes for my favorite genre - team sports, Olympics, inspirational biography, underdog and underprivileged makes good, pushing limits of human endeavor, non-fiction, history in story-telling format.
  • Will leave you in tears at the end. I cannot recommend this highly enough. You do not have to be a rowing fan to enjoy this.
  • My rating : 5/5. Very very very GOOD book.
  • "Men as fit as you, when your everyday strength is gone, can draw on a mysterious reservoir of power far greater. Then it is that you can reach for the stars. That is the way champions are made. ” - George Yeoman Pocock


Taichiseal said...

Pocock began by saying he'd been watching Joe row for a while now, that he was a fine oarsman. He'd noted a few technical faults-that Joe was breaking his arms at the elbows a little too early in the stroke and not catching the water as cleanly as he would if he kept his hands moving at the same speed that the water was moving under the boat. But that wasn't what he wanted to talk about. He told Joe that there were times when he seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat, as if it was up to him to row the boat across the finish line all by himself. When a man rowed like that, he said, he was bound to attack the water rather than to work with it, and worse, he was bound not to let his crew help him row. He suggested that Joe think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined. That's the way it was with rowing. What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn't harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew. It wasn't just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to, even if it meant getting his feelings hurt. Pocock paused and looked up at Joe. "If you don't like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do." He told Joe to be careful not to miss his chance. He reminded him that he'd already learned to row past pain, past exhaustion, past the voice that told him it couldn't be done. That meant he had an opportunity to do things most men would never have a chance to do. And he concluded with a remark that Joe would never forget. "Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you've ever imagined. Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars."

Taichiseal said...

Many who had watched events on the lake closely thought they had seen something beyond merely a good crew race. Clarence Dirks, writing for the Seattle Times, mixing his metaphors with abandon, was the first to put his finger on it: "It would be useless to try to segregate outstanding members of Washington's varsity shell, just as it would be impossible to try to pick a certain note in a beautifully composed song. All were merged into one smoothly working machine; they were, in fact, a poem of motion, a symphony of swinging blades."

Taichiseal said...

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 one 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. A good swing does not necessarily make crews go faster, except to the extent that if no one’s actions check the run of the boat, rowers get more bang for their buck on each stroke. Mainly what it does is allow them to conserve power, to row at a lower stroke rate and still move through the water as efficiently as possible, and often more rapidly than another crew rowing less efficiently at a higher rate. It allows them to possess a reserve of energy for a gut-wrenching, muscle-screaming sprint at the end of a race. It is insanely difficult to keep a good swing as you raise your rate. As the tempo increases, each of the myriad separate actions has to happen at shorter and shorter intervals, so that at some point it becomes virtually impossible to maintain a good swing at a high rate. But the closer a crew can come to that ideal-maintaining a good swing while rowing at a high rate-the closer they are to rowing on another plane, the plane on which champions row. Joe and his crewmates had found their swing as freshmen the day they’d won in Poughkeepsie, and Al Ulbrickson had not forgotten that. He could not, in fact, get the picture of it out of his mind. There had been something marvelous, almost magical, about how they closed out that race. He had to believe that it was still there.

Taichiseal said...

… the greatest paradox of the sport has to do with the psychological makeup of the people who pull the oars. Great oarsmen and oarswomen are necessarily made of conflicting stuff-of oil and water, fire and earth. On the one hand, they must possess enormous self-confidence, strong egos, and titanic willpower. They must be almost immune to frustration. Nobody who does not believe deeply in himself or herself-in his or her ability to endure hardship and to prevail over adversity-is likely even to attempt something as audacious as competitive rowing at the highest levels. The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it. And yet, at the same time-and this is key-no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort-the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes-is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self. The psychology is complex. Even as rowers must subsume their often fierce sense of independence and self-reliance, at the same time they must hold true to their individuality, their unique capabilities as oarsmen or oarswomen or, for that matter, as human beings. Even if they could, few rowing coaches would simply clone their biggest, strongest, smartest, and most capable rowers. Crew races are not won by clones. They are won by crews, and great crews are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types. In physical terms, for instance, one rower’s arms might be longer than another’s, but the latter might have a stronger back than the former. Neither is necessarily a better or more valuable oarsman than the other; both the long arms and the strong back are assets to the boat. But if they are to row well together, each of these oarsmen must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other. Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat-the shorter-armed man reaching a little farther, the longer-armed man foreshortening his reach just a bit-so that both men’s oars remain parallel and both blades enter and exit the water at precisely the same moment. This highly refined coordination and cooperation must be multiplied out across eight individuals of varying statures and physiques to make the most of each individual’s strengths. Only in this way can the capabilities that come with diversity-lighter, more technical rowers in the bow and stronger, heavier pullers in the middle of the boat, for instance-be turned to advantage rather than disadvantage.

Taichiseal said...

... And capitalizing on diversity is perhaps even more important when it comes to the characters of the oarsmen. A crew composed entirely of eight amped-up, overtly aggressive oarsmen will often degenerate into a dysfunctional brawl in a boat or exhaust itself in the first leg of a long race. Similarly, a boatload of quiet but strong introverts may never find the common core of fiery resolve that causes the boat to explode past its competitors when all seems lost. Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow all this must mesh. That’s the steepest challenge. Even after the right mixture is found, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. It is an exquisite thing when it all comes together in just the right way. The intense bonding and the sense of exhilaration that results from it are what many oarsmen row for, far more than for trophies or accolades. But it takes young men or women of extraordinary character as well as extraordinary physical ability to pull it off. That’s what Al Ulbrickson believed he had seen in Washington’s sophomore boat in Poughkeepsie the previous June. They had become that perfect thing that all crew coaches seek.

Don C said...

TS, this is good stuff. Truly inspiring.

I am reminded of my JC canoeing and dragon boat team back in the 90s. RJC was a latecomer to the sport of canoeing and dragon-boating, and when I joined the team in my junior year, we had only taken part in 3 or 4 Schools Nationals Competitions then, and with only out-of-podium results. And the pecking order even showed in the ordering of the canoe storage sheds for the different schools at MacRitchie Reservoir, the venue then for canoeing training and competition:
Shed #1 was taken by NJC, the erstwhile champion and canoeing/dragonboat powerhouse which had dominated the sport ever since it debuted.
Sheds #2 and #3 were taken by Hwa Chong and VJC, then the only schools to seriously threaten NJC, and which had managed to score some first place finishes in some years.
Sheds #4 and #5 went to ACJC and St Andrew's, the perennial bridesmaids trying to get into the top three podium results.
And RJC got Shed #6, the last and grimiest lot at the end of the row.

And the numbering of the sheds mattered, with shed #1 being closest to the water and the little jetty which was the prescribed point to load the canoes onto the water, and the trail leading from the sheds to the jetty was at least about 500m long, and with uneven steps going up and down some slopes.

Imagine hoisting single and double canoes onto your shoulders/back and making several trips (cuz sometimes our girls simply have no strength left after a strenuous training session, and we guys of course gotta help them. But the seniors soon put a stop to that...) to and from the shed to the water and back for every training session. And all the while we are sixth and last in the queue and with the narrow walkway/space in front of the sheds, sometimes we have to stand and wait there with a double canoe on our shoulders while NJC/Hwa Chong/VJC/ACJC/Saints people jam up the tiny space washing and putting away their canoes.
[But after a while we stopped complaining: there were a couple of really pretty girls from the ACJC and Saints teams. We would grab every chance we could to walk pass their sheds and try to catch a glance at them, and ahem, to try and catch some glances at us...

Don C said...

But enough of that; what I really wanted to say was about the inspiring stuff.

At that time, canoeing/dragon-boating was way, way down the prestige and pecking order within RJC; we were about as far away as can be from the aura and accolades given to RI/RJ's traditional trophy sports of rugby, track & field, swimming, tennis (which I am sure you are aware of). Which also meant a corresponding lack of support from the school. Case in point: while the rugby, track and swimming teams had special time-slots for the school weights-room apportioned for their exclusive use, we had none. Our coach and teacher-in-charge was nonexistent and AWOL for almost all of our training sessions. In fact, the pudgy principal Mr Lee FS seized upon this last point and wanted to shut down the canoeing team and remove it as an offered ECA from the school.

It took the sheer perseverance and dogged determination of my seniors (the Year Twos, I was Year One freshman) in the canoeing team, especially the unifying and inspiring leadership of our team captain Hoon Kiat, to keep the sport intact within the school, and to train towards the Nationals.

I still remember his 'pitch' during my freshman orientation week when he and his team members were trying to recruit freshmen into the junior team. He said if we joined, we would be joining a sport and team overlooked by most of the school, disdained and scorned by the other sports teams, and despised by the Head of PE dept Mr K and the school principal, Mr Lee FS. We would have no coach to guide and train us, no teacher-in-charge to fight for us and protect us.
And we would train and train and train, every single day:
at the reservoir, at Kallang river, on the cross-country trails, on the old Roman rings at MacRitchie near the sheds, in the weights-room, on the track, at the pull-up bar next to the school track (which became known as the Canoeists' Corner. We had to do 100 pull-ups everyday, counting from the time we got to school till before we leave at the end of the day. We had a buddy system to make sure we don't cheat. We were at our Corner all the time.)...

And on top of all that, HK said we also have to make sure we score 4 As for our A-Levels, to prove to all our naysayers in school that we could train hard and study hard too.

With a pitch like that, how could I say no...

Don C said...

At the end of their senior year, our captain, HK and the senior team accomplished all that they set out to do, and more. The senior team won the A Division Canoeing Championship at the Nationals that year, and stunned our rival teams and their coaches (save one...), as well as our own teachers and principal in RJC. I and a few other juniors were privileged to be reserves on that team. The feat has not been repeated since. (Sigh, the following year, my team-mates and I only managed to place fourth overall. And as far as I know, we have not come anywhere near first again in the years since...)

Additionally, every member on that senior team got their 4 As in their A-Levels, and a few individuals, whether as a result of the tough canoeing training, or probably because they were already gifted athletes to begin with, also competed in many other sports with good results. One of them, the star of our senior team who set a record time on the technically-difficult and fiendishly-arduous event of 1000m kayak, went on to win gold in cross-country and track events, and also played for the soccer team.

So sorry for this long comment. But your excerpts above from this rowing book just made me think of my initial time in canoeing when my confused paddling in circles and countless capsizes suddenly crystallized and straightened into 'effortless' stroke after stroke after stroke...
And the delight at the moment when me and my doubles partner and our paddling seemed to meld into one unit and precise machine, when our every stroke matched perfectly and you could feel it in your very being that finally!, we are not paddling 'against' each other, not wasting any stroke and work and energy we were putting in, but that every pull-and-push of this paddle-flywheel goes 100% efficiently into propelling us farther and faster ahead...

And especially for the inspiration that was my seniors and our captain, HK. He was truly: O Captain! My Captain!
They really were like a single well-oiled machine, and all heart.

Those were the times...

Taichiseal said...


What a great story! I was completely useless at sports and was never involved in any competitive team endeavors throughout my school days. That’s a big regret in my life, never having been good (or gifted) enough to represent my schools in any sport. Perhaps that’s why I just love to listen to others talk about their experiences in what I missed out on – being part of a team, training hard, playing hard, rising to the challenge of superior opposition, and the camaraderie.

In any case, love your story. Thanks for sharing. So, did you get harmony, balance and rhythm (George Yeoman Pocock) out of canoeing?

PS : Please check your Gmail later.

Don C said...


Heh, well, I got a Sea-Pro (sea proficiency) cert out of it. I can barrel-roll out of any capsize situation in a S4 canoe;
stand up straight with my feet straddled on a K1 kayak and BALANCE for a full minute (its actually a lot harder than it sounds! competition kayaks are very unstable with sharp bottoms. we used to do this for laughs - a la karate kid stances...);
when everything comes together for you and your fellow paddlers on a dragon-boat, you just may enter into that amazing zone of RHYTHM;
on our many outer islands expeditions (3-day round island journeys, southern islands-hopping, short overnight trips to ubin/sajahat/coney) we'd form our diamond formation and proceed like a mini-flotilla, the best part would be canoeing during night-time, with every canoe lit up by light-sticks and one time, we must had disturbed a school of fish - they started jumping across our canoes and with their luminescent bodies, they looked like pink and blue light-sticks darting in and out of the water! Then, looking up and staring at the great expanse of the night sky filled with a mind-boggling multitude of stars...I still remember that as one of my greatest moments of oneness and HARMONY in my life...

Ha, no seriously though, I know what you mean. While I can't say the canoeing training changed my life or something, the tough training and other aspects of the experience did leave some marks. After canoeing training, NS army training (at least the physical part) was a cinch. And some of the experience must had helped me get through other tough patches in life...

Anyway, to lighten the mood a little, here's an example of a Barrel Roll:
(But actually, the canoeist didn't perform a full barrel roll to right himself up, he capsized and held himself down to demonstrate keeping calm during a capsized situation while waiting for someone to perform a rescue, part of the first level canoe novice certification.)