The Depression, the Dust Bowl and Hitler’s 1936 Olympics raise this from being just another story of sporting prowess to an inspirational account of the triumph of human spirit against overwhelming odds. Think Chariots of Fire but on water.
Author Daniel James Brown focuses on the hardscrabble life of one member of the gold-medal winning University of Washington rowing crew, Joe Rantz, and it’s not hard to see why.
Orphaned at an early age, despised by his stepmother and finally abandoned by his family, Rantz endured a brutal upbringing, desperate poverty and an early life of grinding labor that would have crushed lesser men.
It’s the mental and physical toughness he possesses that earn him a place in the university freshman crew, but he’s far from the finished product and the narrative is propelled along by the outstanding personalities who shape and develop his talent.
There’s hard-nosed head coach Al Ulbrickson, a man who is hard to read and even harder to please, and then there’s the supreme boat-builder of the day, George Pocock, a quiet, sagacious Brit, with a knack of coming up with inspirational advice at just the right time in just the right way.
There are sub plots aplenty too. Ulbrickson is an intense rival of Southern Cal counterpart Ky Ebright, a former UW cox and assistant coach, who struck gold in the 1932 games and threatens to upstage him again.
Their west coast battle is further intensified by the challenge of the Ivy League east coast crews; working class boys versus the wealthy, privileged set.
And then there’s the games backdrop itself, a propaganda opportunity seized by Josef Goebbels and pioneering film-maker Leni Riefenstahl to support Hitler’s vision of a resurgent Reich and an Aryan master race.
Brown expertly pulls these themes together in a story that skims along without flagging and which will hold you in thrall to the finishing line and beyond.