What I’m Reading: “The Boys in the Boat”


“Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment.” [The Boys in the Boat, p. 39)

(Note: I'm going to try something new here. Each Wednesday I am going to post about a book I am reading or have recently read. It may be a review, a critique, or simply reflections based on that book. This is the first installment in "What I'm Reading Wednesdays.")

I spent a year on a crew team. A long, cold, wet, wonderful year. Waking up at 4:30 in the morning, on the water shortly after five, breaking a sweat six inches in the bone-chilling cold of a Seattle winter… all for the chance to compete in a few spring races. This is rowing. A sixty-foot boat less than two feet wide, propelled by eight rowers pulling on twelve-foot oars while sitting less than six inches above the water. This is rowing. Hours on the water, days rolling into weeks stretching into months; practice after practice after practice; and all of that just to work your way up to average. This is rowing.

Reading Daniel James Brown’s account of the American crew that won gold in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin takes me back to that year at Seattle Pacific University. We sat in the same George Pocock-built cedar racing shells; pulled hard on the same yellow-spruce oars; plied through the same cold waters of Lake Union and Lake Washington. I don’t know how many times I rowed through the Montlake Cut and past the University of Washington boathouse that is at the center of Brown’s action. Those waters were almost hallowed, the UW crews legendary. If our boat of novices could compete with the purple and gold of our cross-town rivals, then we were on our way.

Legends grow out of history, liberally seasoned with hyperbole. Brown provides both history and hyperbole, breathing life into the legends in the boats we passed on those cold waters.

I grew up playing sports. I’ve competed on the baseball diamond, basketball court, wrestling mat, soccer pitch, and football field. I’ve high jumped, thrown the discus, and run the 800-meters. None of those, in either practice or competition, even comes close to the effort of rowing. Indeed, rowing intensely engages the entire body—including the brain—in a very concentrated period of time. “Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand meter race—the Olympic standard—exacts the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.” [p. 39]

The Boys in the Boat is a mixture of history and drama, romance and sport and adventure. I enjoy it in part because of my familiarity with the sport and the area. Any reader, though, should find much here to keep the pages turning.

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