By Dena Rebozo
The final day of Key West Literary Seminar winds down in uplifting triumph. With most of his crew mates gone and the last couple months of his own life remaining, Joe Rantz meets Daniel James Brown. Unbeknownst to Brown, Rantz rowed in front of Adolf Hitler in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He and eight other boys of the American Olympic Rowing Team in that 2,000-meter race faced staggering, irrefutable adversity and obstacles leading up to the most spectacular almost six-and-a-half-minute race ever rowed, a race of imperishable triumph of a team pulling together, a perfect living thing. If you are out of breath reading this, I was out of breath just watching the video clip Brown showed of the actual race from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Maybe you feel like the rowers now – post-race hunched over, gasping. Just one second separated the top three finishing boats.
Back to Brown and Rantz.
“Can I write about your life?” Brown pole vaults.
“No,” croaks Rantz. Silence.
“You can write a book about the boat,” he says, joy and pride shining in tears.
The boat refers to all the guys who rowed, all nine of them.
Four years later, Brown finishes the book, indeed, about the boat. What makes this book about rowing the kind of book audience members stood up to proclaim and urge others to read during the Q&A session? After all, what might be more boring than a book about rowing? How did this book win the most votes from independent booksellers nationwide within a year of being published?
Boys in the Boat does not simply keep alive a previously untold story as compelling and important as Jesse Owens’s in the 1936 Olympics. It keeps alive the flame of a great generation, one gouged by mighty suffering, deprivation, and hardship. This is the story of the forging of a great team and their achievement “pulling together” that at once belongs to them and to a generation with the Herculean task of triumphing come Word War II.
Brown distills six remarkable “comeback” qualities embodied by every boy in the boat. First, through a brutal self-selection “whittling” process just to earn a seat, each boy personifies perseverance and resilience. Second, they epitomize adaptability rowing in different length races, different bodies of water with different currents, winds, waves, different air temperatures, employing different strategies against various opponents. Third, every man pulls his heart out, pulls for the others. An extraordinary level of mutual respect and trust is present. Fourth, these are Zen rowers focusing with single-pointed attention on their secret mantra “mind in boat, mind in boat.” Fifth, in one word, is earnestness. Summed up best by George Yeoman Pocock, not only their shell-builder, but inarguably their rowing guru. “I leave a piece of my heart with every boat,” he said. “Leave a piece of your heart with every race.” Least obvious yet most important, a measure of humility hallmarks their approach to rowing, each needing the other to surpass adversity.
Pocock once said, “In a sport like this – hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every century – well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men can’t see, but extraordinary men do.” Dan Brown, you are Pocock’s extraordinary man. Thank you for seeing the beauty and opening our eyes. May this story kindle the hearts of our generation so that together we can find our “swing.”
Dena Rebozo, a public librarian turned special educator, is a 2020 Teacher & Librarian Scholarship Recipient. Her sports are swimming in the Salish Sea and hula hooping.