The Boys in the Boat


The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest
For Gold at the 1936 Olympics – A book by Daniel James Brown

Each month I join a group of men that I have known for decades to share breakfast on a Saturday morning and to catch up on the life events each experience.  They are life-long family friends who have shared much over the decades we have shared individually, in teams, and through our families.  We know each other well and instinctively know the interests of each other.

During our gathering on the last Saturday of June 2017, one of these friends, Jerry Underhill, suggested I read “The Boys in the Boat”.  He knows my interest in and commitment to helping teams become “the best version of themselves”.  Jerry enthusiastically recommended that I read this story of the nine men and how they became the best in their sport under the guidance of their coach and the man who built their boat.

That day I downloaded the book onto my IPad and began to read.  And read and read I did.   One of the things you don’t realize when you acquire a digital book is how big it is.  Only when I was nearly to the end did I discover that the hard cover version is 417 pages thick!  Never have I consumed a such a book as quickly as I did this one.

We have all seen pictures of racing sculls; long, slim boats with eight oarsmen moving in unison under the command of a coxswain.  This story is about the University of Washington  eight-oared crew that represented the United States in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and narrowly beat out Italy and Germany to win the gold medal.

There are two backstories. One illustrates how all nine members of the Washington team came from lower-middle-class families and had to struggle to earn their way through school during the depths of the depression. Along with the chronicle of their victories and defeats in domestic competition, the reader learns the importance of synchronization of the eight rowers as they respond to the commands of the coxswain and his communications with the stroke, consistent pacing, and sprint to the finish.

The second backstory begins with a depiction of Hitler decreeing construction of the spectacular German venues at which the Games would take place. Along the way, the book also claims that the Nazis successfully covered up the evidence of their harsh and inhumane treatment of the Jews so as to win worldwide applause for the 1936 Olympic Games, duping the United States Olympic Committee among others.

All comes together with a description of the final race. During the 1930s, rowing was a popular sport with millions following the action on the radio. The victorious Olympians became national heroes. In accordance with the strictures of amateur athletics, the boys sank into relative obscurity after their victory but were still better off than their parents, and for the rest of their lives proud of their accomplishment. After their win, they would come together every few years to row again.

This book resonated with me on many levels and for many reasons.  The boys in the boat were the same age as my father.  The stories of their lives and the challenges they faced in the midst of the great depression was the story of my dad who left the family farm for the winter to venture into southern California in search of work in a lumber yard alongside of his cousin who worked there.  And then returning to Nebraska to court and marry my mother to start our family.

Over the years I have seen and experienced the building of great teams that have accomplished amazing results.  The ingredients that make for a great team are artfully surfaced and joined together by the author to help the reader understand the level of personal commitment and teamwork necessary to accomplish great goals.  There are many critical success factors in creating and sustaining great teams and the story of this team dramatizes many of them.

After the victory in Berlin the boys returned to the United States as heroes who upon graduation went separate ways.  Yet they still came together from time to time to catch up, row, reminisce and enjoy each other.  At this stage of my life I can really relate to that.

For more than 25 years I had many team experiences as a professional accountant and business advisor with the public accounting firm, Arthur Young.  Everything we did to serve our clients was done in teams.  Our training and personal development efforts pale when compared to what the boys in the boat endured.  But the lessons of teamwork, leadership and service were ever bit as strong and driven home to each of us as we progressed through the levels of increasing responsibility to become partners in the firm.  We became the “boys in the boat” who led our offices and practice units to success as we competed with other professional services firms to serve our clients.

Every month or two I gather with my former Arthur Young (now Ernst and Young) partners for lunch.  As the boys in the boat did, we catch up, reminisce, and remember those who are no longer with us.  It is a great time and I always walk away refreshed and happy.

And then there are the boys of All Saints, the group I described as I opened this package of thoughts.  What is it that keeps bringing us together?  I believe it is our shared memories of times and endeavors where we came together to accomplish a purpose that none could have done alone.  And shared the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a job well done.  And we got to know, understand, and celebrate the talents of each other.  But most of all we care for and love each other as we continue, even in this stage of our lives, to help each other become the “best version of ourselves”.

Pick up this book, enjoy the journey and ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the innate talents I have that bring me happiness and joy as I work with others?
  • What have been the characteristics of the “boats” where I have experienced the feelings of success described by the author of this book?  Who were the coxswains, the coaches, and the boat builders who empowered and encouraged my teams?  What did I learn from each of them?
  • Where are the opportunities for me today to apply my unique combination of talents that brings satisfaction where my skills and knowledge are applied as I work with others to achieve success in a shared “boat”?
  • And finally, where are the opportunities to gather some past “boys in the boat” team members together to catchup, reminisce, and care for each other?

I welcome the opportunity to visit with you about these questions.  Just drop ma a note or give me a call.

Thank you, Jerry, for knowing me and how much I would enjoy this book.

Tom Samson

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