The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

by Daniel James Brown

Hardcover, 2013

Call number




Viking (2013), Edition: First Edition, 416 pages


This is the remarkable story of the University of Washington's 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

Media reviews

In “The Boys on the Boat,” Daniel James Brown tells the astonishing story of the UW’s 1936 eight-oar varsity crew and its rise from obscurity to fame, drawing on interviews with the surviving members of the team and their diaries, journals and photographs. A writer and former writing teacher at Stanford and San Diego, Brown lives outside of Seattle, where one of his elderly neighbors harbored a history Brown never imagined: he was Joe Rantz, one of the members of the iconic UW 1936 crew.
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[Daniel James] Brown's book juxtaposes the coming together of the Washington crew team against the Nazis' preparations for the [1936 Berlin Olympic] Games, weaving together a history that feels both intimately personal and weighty in its larger historical implications. This book has already been bought for cinematic development, and it's easy to see why: When Brown, a Seattle-based nonfiction writer, describes a race, you feel the splash as the oars slice the water, the burning in the young men's muscles and the incredible drive that propelled these rowers to glory.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Schmerguls
The final chapters of this book are so poignant, so clutchingly exciting, that one forgets about the fact that much of the earlier part of the book is cloying and over-written. It is the story of the rowing team from the University of Washington which in 1936 won a gold medal at the Berlin Olympics. The author has researched the story well, even though as I read the earlier chapters I wished that he had toned down some of the flights of enthusiasm or dolorousness he sometimes indulges in..… (more)
LibraryThing member Beamis12
If someone had told me I would become emotionally invested is a book about rowing, I would have though they were crazy. First, I knew little about rowing and second, I had no desire to learn. A read for a group I am in had me picking up this book and I am so glad I did. As many mothers have said, try it before you decode you don't like it.

An amazing balance of human interest, history and sport. Joe Rantz's story had my mothers heart wanting to give his ten year old self a big hug. His story and the man he became is simply heart breaking and admirable. He and the other boys wormed their way under my skin and I found myself holding my breath more than once during their races.

The book went back and forth between the US and Germany. The snow job they pulled on the world during the Olympics, convincing many others that they were a progressive and fair nation. There were small moments of humor too, as when the German people greeted our athletes with a raised arm and shouted, Heil, Hitler, our athletes raised their arms and answered back, "Heil, Roosevelt.

The sport of course took up much of the book from the scull maker, Popcock to the coach, Al Ubrickson. The hard work that went into training, and of course the races, competitions between the East and West coast. The lives of the men in the boat and what happened to them after.

All in all I found this a stirring read, a wonderful book.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
Oh, bite me. I don't give a crap about crew - who in the book club recommended this title?

That was my reaction before reading the book, but holy hell, what a story. It's about the legendary 1936 Olympic rowing team from the University of Washington, comprised mainly of "uncouth" working class boys who were more or less scorned by the privileged students of the elite eastern schools. Against-all-odds victories always make for a good read, but the story of crew member Joe Rantz takes the cake, who as a teenager was literally abandoned by his family and had to forage for food.

Of course, the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin. While we're learning about the crew members, their coaches, and possibly the best boat maker in the world, we also learn about how the Nazis viewed the event as perfect propaganda for their Aryan paradise. They cleansed the city of the most obvious anti-semitism and hired infamous Leni Riefenstahl to film the monstrous film Olympia. Oh, and they clearly tried to rig the rowing competition by changing the rules and giving the Americans the worst lane.

A couple quibbles. I don't like hagiography, and would have preferred a more warts-and-all portrayal of the athletes. I would have liked a more thorough discussion of decision to participate in the 1946 Nazi-fest at all. And I would have liked a more complete picture of Joe Rantz's stepmother Thula, who in this book is a stepmother straight out of fairy tales and is just too despicable to be believed.
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LibraryThing member maggie1944
I really loved this book. It was one of those which called me from the bedside table all through the day: come back, and read; come back and read! It is an accounting of the rowing crew of young men from the University of Washington who went to the Olympics in 1936 and against incredible disadvantages, some engineered by the Nazi men on the Olympic course, won the gold metal for an 8 man crew with a coxswain. This book appealed to me because it was filled with wonderful Seattle history, some of which made up stories I heard as a kid growing up in Seattle. And finally it pleased me because it is an excellent epic adventure of these young men and their coaches. A travel into unknown territory, overcoming huge challenges, meeting monsters and prevailing made up this story which really belongs with the best of epic hero tales. One more thing: the author knows his craft very well and built the tension and joy of watching races right into the pages, time after time, and even though the reader knows the end of the story it is a book which demands to be read to the end of the race. Five Stars from me, and a hearty recommendation to all readers who love history, and sport, and epic tales.… (more)
LibraryThing member terran
This was definitely one of my favorite books of 2013. It is non-fiction, but reads so easily and contains so many actual twists of fate that in many cases I felt that truth IS stranger than fiction. The University of Washington men's rowing team is at the center of the book: the rowers themselves and their back stories and how the Great Depression formed and influenced them. I learned so many historical details that were told to illustrate the personal impact they had on the main characters. We all studied the Great Depression, but have we been told the stories of how families dealt with the crushing events? I never felt I was "slogging through" but was excited to read about real people and real situtations.… (more)
LibraryThing member benjfrank
The best book I've read in a long time. Like the crew described in the book, it starts out slowly and unassuming, but picks up the pace in a remarkable way. I read the last 120 pages this afternoon. Yes, it's about the University of Washington's 1935-1936 eight-man crew, but there's so much more to it than rowing. A group of working class boys from nowhere, try to get through the Depression, and follow a dour coach and a quietly poetic boat-builder on the waters of Lake Washington. They struggle quite a bit, each in their own ways, find a sort of mystical teamwork, "touch the divine" at one point, and maybe, just maybe, rattle Hitler at the Berlin Olympics. It's inspirational and wonderfully well-written. One reviewer called it "Chariots of Fire with oars." He's right. And it's expected to become a movie soon directed by Kenneth Branagh. But read it first. It's that good.… (more)
LibraryThing member EBT1002
I started by giving this 4.5 stars because I don't think I've ever given a nonfiction work more than that. It seems weird to me. But the truth is that this book was almost life-changing for me. It was well-researched and well-written, with an intelligent commitment to the biographical aspect and a clear eye on the unfathomable history of that era. The eight-plus-coxswain crew who rowed for the University of Washington and then for the USA in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were savvy, good-hearted, salt-of-the-Earth young men. They overcame obstacle after obstacle but Brown doesn't coat the story with molasses or overplay the challenging roads they traveled to get to the UW and then to the Olympics. He tells the story with crisp, straightforward prose and a keen sense of the human spirit. This was an absolute delight to read and I will be visiting the Conibear Shell House on the UW campus this fall to pay due respect to these nine men. Absolutely recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member techeditor
Although its subtitle implies that THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is about the American eight-oar rowing crew in the 1936 Olympics, the book is more than that. It's mostly about what led to the formation of the crew. Also, the story is made personal by its concentration on one of the boys, Joe Rantz.

If THE BOYS IN THE BOAT was fiction, I wouldn't have enjoyed it. That's because the whole thing is so unlikely: Joe overcame such odds in his personal life. None of the boys came from money when they suddenly emerged from Seattle, a city few were familiar with then, to beat the prestigious Eastern schools (e.g., Yale and Harvard). The boat and the boys dealt with several disadvantages in Germany, both before and during their races, only to beat their competition. None of this story would be believable if I didn't know it was true.

Throughout this book, juxtaposed against Joe's and the boys' story is Hitler's creation of the fictional Germany that he wanted to present to the world during the Olympics there. As he hides the real Germany, the US ignores him, and the boys and other athletes just work on getting there.

When the story was over, I didn't want it to be over. So I read the endnotes. You'll probably do that, too.
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LibraryThing member exfed
Excellent read, whether you care about rowing or not. Its a great story of human courage and perseverance. The classic American story of every day persons stepping up to do great things.
LibraryThing member Bellettres
One of the best books of 2013 for me, certainly the best "sports" book I've ever read. An earlier review mentioned that it wouldn't have been as good if it had been a novel, and I agree. The difficulties that the young men on the rowing team had to overcome were almost unbelievable. Well researched and very well written. A+… (more)
LibraryThing member michigantrumpet
I just loved this wonderful true life story of the oarsmen of the University of Washington. Far removed from their East Coast elite competition, these sons of lumbermen, farmers and Depression era down-and-outers managed to overcome the odds to compete at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Through their own dedication and commitment to excellence, they overcame much diversity. My deepest respect comes for their coaches and mentors who typified the best of leaders and educators everywhere. A favorite quote:

"...Bolles sometimes spoke of life-transforming experiences. He held out the prospect of becoming part of something larger than themselves, of finding in themselves something they did not yet know they possessed, of growing from boyhood to manhood. At times he dropped his voice a bit and shifted his tone and cadence and talked of near mystical moments on the water – moments of pride, elation and deep affection for one’s fellow oarsmen, moments they would remember, cherish and recount to their grandchildren when they were old men. Moments, even, that would bring them nearer to God.

We all hope for -- and if lucky enough, recall for a lifetime -- these moments of transcendence.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This was a startlingly good book! I'm not really interested in sports, and probably wouldn't have picked this up if it weren't set in Seattle, where I live. Once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down. You know from reading the cover that this is about the crew team that won a gold medal at the Olympics, but Brown still manages to create incredible suspension and keep the reader really interested.

It helps that this is one of those too-good-to-be-true stories, full of many classic elements: underdogs beating the odds, people learning to love and trust each other before they can succeed, working class boys out-doing East Coast old money at their own game, not to mention Good Old American hard work and perseverance defeating the Evil Nazis in their own back yard, all against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the tension of the build-up to World War Two.

The local color really helped, too - I am familiar with most of the places in Washington where the action takes place, so that probably helped me enjoy the book more than I would have otherwise.
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LibraryThing member LibraryCin
4.5 stars

Joe Rantz grew up extremely poor during the depression. His mother died when he was young and when his father remarried, Joe's stepmother, Thula, was very unhappy, so she, Joe's father, and their kids left Joe behind to fend for himself on a couple of occasions. Thula never wanted to take care of Joe. Joe managed to not only put himself through university, he made the rowing team... the rowing team that went on to fight for the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This is Joe's story, and the story of that rowing team.

I'm not “into” rowing, but this was really good. Some of the technical aspects that described the rowing, I skimmed over, but everything else was really interesting and quite riveting. Not only did we learn about rowing, Joe's life, and life during the Depression, there was also discussion of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany leading up to the Olympics that were held in Belin. All very interesting and I was reading “on the edge of my seat” during some of the races!
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LibraryThing member traumleben
An incredibly well-written book that follows a group of Depression Era boys from Washington state to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as they work through individual struggle and team challenges along the way. Daniel Brown constructed a beautiful narrative, which you have to keep reminding yourself is documentary, based on journals, news features, recollections from relatives and friends, and exhaustive research on the whole. He has a gift for capturing a scene, an inner struggle, a small victory, the tension in a race that keeps you turning the pages. Brown really captures the character and grit of Americans who survived the Depression and went on to help liberate a world from fascism in WWII.… (more)
LibraryThing member sail7
If I could give it 6 stars I would. This is an amazing story, told with just the right amount of detail. Even though the title tells you how it comes out, it is still a suspenseful story with a great ending. "Overcoming Adversity" is a severely overused term in sports commentary, but this story takes the meaning of the phrase to a new level. This is a book that is so engaging I hated to see it end.… (more)
LibraryThing member snash
A superb book. As the book explains, to row an 8 man scull well involves much more than 8 men rowing, and this book is much more than the story of a trip to the Olympics.
LibraryThing member shazjhb
What a great book and such a sense of who the boys were and their place in history. I know a ton about this period of time but learnt many more facts. This was an exciting and joyful book. It is a very interesting commentary on the propaganda from the games. My favorite summer read. At the end of the book, I wanted to join a rowing team!… (more)
LibraryThing member hazel1123
This book will be very near the top of my list of best books. The people are interesting and the descriptions of the actual races seem to bring the event to life .
LibraryThing member ozzer
This was an inspirational sports story that balanced well the adversities, personal triumphs and comradeship that usually are a part of this genre. I like the observation that I read in one of the reviews that if this were fiction it would not be very good because it was quite implausible, but as non-fiction it was quite remarkable. The protagonist was Joe Rantz, who had a challenging youth being abandoned by his family twice, once at 10 and another time at 17. Despite that he graduated from college, married his hometown sweetheart, and became an Olympic gold medalist. The setting of 1930s depression Seattle was done quite effectively as was the relationship of the athletes to their coach. Of particular significance to the story were the many quotations from George Yeoman Pocock, a mystical boat builder and rowing guru. Through him and the coach--Ulbrickson-- Brown provides a lot of good information about competitive rowing that most readers probably will be unfamiliar to most readers. Several of the other members of the crew also provided some irony and drama, including the Jewish Cox--Bobby Mach--who was unaware of his ancestry until he went to Germany and the stroke--Don Hume--who was very ill at the time of the gold medal race, but was so important to the crew that he rowed despite illness. The historical context of the Nazi propaganda machine,especially the filming of Leni Riefenstahl provided a particularly menacing antagonist. I highly recommend looking at the Riefenstahl film of the race on YouTube ONLY after finishing the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Trudy1947miller
Delightful,heart in the throat read i found inspiring, heartwarming,
LibraryThing member nmele
A first class story, told with intelligence and style.
LibraryThing member KayMackey
Disclosure: I received a free advance uncorrected copy of The Boys in the Boat via GoodReads First Reads, courtesy of Viking.

The Boys in the Boat is an engaging Cinderella story of a young team of rowers who came from very humble origins to win Olympic glory, despite the overwhelming odds against them. This compelling human interest story is very accessible even for those who have little or no previous knowledge of the sport of rowing.

Highly recommended for sports fans and anyone who enjoyed Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. One side note: as this book is focused mainly on a single team, readers interested in Olympic history might prefer a more general work on the Berlin Games; at times, the backdrop of the games themselves is slightly wanting here.
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LibraryThing member ArtRodrigues
I had no interest in rowing or crew until a friend recommended I read this book. I now have an interest in this sport. The Boys in the Boat is probably one of the best stories I've ever read. The plot really isn't so much about crew as it was about human perservance. It is richly told, with exquisite detail. The author's research was amazing, as well as his ability to boil down and tell us a story that was well worth telling. Bravo!… (more)
LibraryThing member steeleyjan
As inspirational as it is sobering, "The Boys In The Boat" takes us from the doorstep of WWII to the Olympics of 1936 in Berlin. The story centers around Joe, who was a young child growing up during The Great Depression.

With incredible imagery and historic accuracy, Joe recalls the tragic events of his heartbreaking and homeless childhood, and reflects on the hunger and loneliness of that decade.

With a redemption that overpowers The Great Depression, Joe's determination takes him from devastation to greatness in this inspiring true story of a 9 man Crewing Team.
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LibraryThing member creighley
Despite the fact that ones knows the outcome of this story, somehow Brown captivates the struggles of the men in the boat and the agony and beauty of rowing. The story focuses primarily on Joe Rants who despite overwhelming odds, becomes a central member of the rowing team. A remarkable tale!




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