Overview: I will start by noting that this is one of the best books I have read so far in 2014. Daniel Brown tells the true story of a group of young men who overcame all odds to win the gold medal in the 2,000 meter nine-man rowing sprint in the Berlin 1936 Olympics. The story revolves around Joe Rantz, a teenager growing up without a family in the midst of the great depression. Rantz joins the Washington rowing team, led by legendary coach Al Ulbrickson and assisted by famed boat builder Joe Pocock, where he struggles to find a spot on the varsity boat which is ultimately destined for the 1936 Olympics.
It is a story of overcoming adversity, beating all odds, and learning the power of trusting the people on your team. Brown does an amazing job at telling this story, and it is something I believe anyone can find value in. The Washington rowing team represents the power that can come when people unite for the same cause, entrusting everyone involved.
Lesson: In a team, the ability or skill of an individual isn’t the most important factor of success. Great things happen when a team is made of members who entrust the people around them to give it their all, because they are all working together for the same cause.
There are many quotes from the book itself that do a better job incorporating the lesson stated above, most of which can be found below.
Interested in other books I have read? Check out the archive here.
Important Passages (Per Sean):
It was a shared experience— a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.
There were a thousand and one small things that had to be learned, mastered, and brought to bear in precisely the right way to propel a twenty-four-inch-wide cedar shell, carrying three-quarters of a ton of human flesh and bone, through the water with any semblance of speed and grace.
The trick would be to find which few of them had the potential for raw power, the nearly superhuman stamina, the indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique. And which of them, coupled improbably with all those other qualities, had the most important one: the ability to disregard his own ambitions , to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.
Being in motion, outdoors, with wind in his face made him feel alive— it brushed away the anxiety that since his mother’s death had seemed to be nibbling continuously at the corners of his mind.
If you simply kept your eyes open, it seemed , you just might find something valuable in the most unlikely of places. The trick was to recognize a good thing when you saw it, no matter how odd or worthless it might at first appear, no matter who else might just walk away and leave it behind.
Physiologists , in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race— the Olympic standard— takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back -to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.
It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.
And he came to understand how those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing— a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy.
It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them.
“No. That won’t work. Look, Son, if there’s one thing I’ve figured out about life, it’s that if you want to be happy, you have to learn how to be happy on your own.”
By the mid-1930s, a Pocock eight-man shell would have the same market price as a brand-new LaSalle built by General Motors’ Cadillac division.
You had to master your opponent mentally. When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not— that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown, something that once revealed would make him doubt himself, make him falter just when it counted the most. Like so much in life, crew was partly about confidence, partly about knowing your own heart.
Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something more fundamental— the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.
Eventually, if they were going to become what he hoped they would, he would need to see each of them develop the rare balance of ego and humility that great oarsmen somehow always manage to have.
The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it.
The wood , Pocock murmured , taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, 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.
The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, to accommodate, he said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood, so long as it was helmed by inner resolve and by principle.
Every one of them had come from humble origins or been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up. Each in his own way, they had all learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life, that for all their strength and good looks and youth, forces were at work in the world that were greater than they.
“People in New York are all very tired looking, pale, & soft. The people seldom smile & don’t look healthy & full of vigor as out west.”
Every muscle, tendon, and ligament in their bodies was burning with pain, but they were rowing beyond pain, rowing in perfect, flawless harmony. Nothing was going to stop them.
Men as fit as you , when your everyday strength is gone, can draw on a mysterious reservoir of power far greater. Then it is that you can reach for the stars. That is the way champions are made.
when Joe realized with startling clarity that there was nothing more he could do to win the race, beyond what he was already doing. Except for one thing. He could finally abandon all doubt, trust absolutely without reservation that he and the boy in front of him and the boys behind him would all do precisely what they needed to do at precisely the instant they needed to do it. He had known in that instant that there could be no hesitation, no shred of indecision. He had had no choice but to throw himself into each stroke as if he were throwing himself off of a cliff into a void, with unquestioned faith that the others would be there to save him from catching the whole weight of the shell on his blade. And he had done it. Over and over, forty-four times per minute, he had hurled himself blindly into his future, not just believing but knowing that the other boys would be there for him, all of them, moment by precious moment.
Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.
“The eight oarsmen quietly shook hands, departed on different paths, and the crew that is hailed as the finest rowing combination of all time passed into history.”