Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” is a landmark chronicle of the University of Washington rowing team and their epic victory in the 1936 Olympics over the team fielded and funded by Nazi Germany as an example to the world of the so-called perfection of the Nazi state.
The story unfolds of a Cinderella come-from-behind-at-every-moment team that overcomes illness, underfunding and cheating Nazi officials to win Olympic gold. Their story is more than a rags-to-riches epic. It is a study in excellence.
British transplant George Pocock is one of the main characters in this drama unfolding over multiple lives. Not a team member, he built the finest wooden shells of their day, for Washington and its rivals, although he was on the coaching staff for Washington.
He didn’t just build boats – he learned to row them very well. He was inclined by nature to master everything he tackled – every tool, every rowing stroke, every manner of speaking, teaching and coaching rowing. He studied the classics and became himself a philosopher in the generic sense, often and appropriately quoting Shakespeare and other masters of various disciplines.
Beginning life as a despised cockney from London he educated himself in the best tradition of the Renaissance Man.
In his role as competitive rowing’s premier builder and mentor, Pocock studied the physics of water, wood, and wind alongside the biomechanics of muscle and bone. This was necessary for combining the best materials with the best of human skill for the task at hand, but Pocock would have needed to satisfy his own endless curiosity in any case.
He discovered kindred spirits in rowers like Joe Rantz and took them under his wing to learn about God’s creation as much as how to row swiftly in His waters. He discovered in red cedar the combination of strength and flexibility he needed to eliminate most of the nailing from construction. Rantz learned these wood features – and how wood “talks” when one works it – from his friend, Charlie McDonald, when they logged together, but graduate study was a gift from George Pocock.
Pocock taught the boys even more important lessons on their role as stewards of the creation and of one another. Rantz quoted Pocock – paraphrasing Joyce Kilmer – that “I can build a boat but only God can make a tree.”
Rantz continues, on p. 214, “The wood, Pocock murmured, taught us about survival…but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves. About the reasons we were all here.”
German officials hid what they were already doing to Jews and others they deemed undesirable; they cheated in multiple dimensions of the competition, from placing rivals in unfairly added lanes where currents were treacherous to giving starting calls only to selected teams. And they used the whole Olympic drama as a massive propaganda opportunity.
Pocock instilled in the boys in the boat a passion for the whole lives of their teammates that transcended their time on the water; he molded them into a family – not just of relatives but of men – and it is this team that came from behind to win.
But this team had to know it was more than their mutual bonding at work when their strongest oarsman – running a high fever and literally passed out at his oar – came to and launched a massive effort to power the team into a win against the surging Nazi boat with the head start and the most favorable lane. Only a miracle from God could account for what happened in that final race.
The other side of the coin – the relentless pursuit of perfection – is embodied in the fact-finding trip of U.S. Olympic Committee officials Avery Brundage and Charles Sherrill to Berlin. There was a move on in America to boycott the 1936 games because of recurring reports of Nazi atrocities against Jews and other minorities in Germany.
Brundage and Sherill were charged with bringing home a recommendation for or against the boycott. Obsessed with visions of many gold medals, they drank the Kool-Aid served by Propaganda Minister Goebbels that all was peaceful in the Reich, giving a green light to American participation.
Perfection is like that – able to see one thing only. Of course they were proved magnificently wrong by subsequent and bloody events.
Excellence always trumps perfection, and it is excellence on parade that makes “The Boys in the Boat” such a wonderful – and inspiring – read.
The caveat here is that a commitment to excellence does not guarantee victory in the worldly sense; it guarantees a life worth living, a victory beyond the one dimensional, and – often – victory even the world can see.
German athletes took the most medals in 1936, and the rigged conditions were only exposed later. But African American athletes – learning the hard way how to be human when the world denies your humanity – took a full quarter of all American medals and featured the immortal achievements of Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf – to name but two.
The American rowing team was composed of hard-scrabble boys from much of America who learned there is much more to winning than mere winning by living it. Excellence is about a whole life, given by God, and taken hold of by persons more full of His Spirit than of themselves.
The boys in the boat came from behind in all dimensions of their life and – in 1936 – they won even the race.
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