In the spring of 2019, the University of Washington completed a multimedia display at Conibear Shellhouse celebrating the 1936 Washington Rowing team, and it features the following narrative of the '36 season as written by Eric (with Daniel James Brown and Judy Rantz Willman). Spoiler alert! If you want the real experience of this incredible story, close this page and open up a copy of The Boys in the Boat... but another warning: you won't be able to put it back down!
Few stories in sport capture the true spirit and triumph of amateur athletics like that of the 1936 Washington Olympic Champion rowing team. Made globally famous in the 2013 bestseller The Boys in the Boat, the nine young men who rowed the Husky Clipper to victory have come to define the essence of rowing: personal perseverance, team over self, and unbreakable bonds that last a lifetime.
With the Great Depression entering a sixth year, Seattle in 1936 was a city in search of good news. Those fortunate enough to attend the University of Washington often did so by working manual, low-wage jobs, and the men on the rowing team were no different; however they also endured the high-level, physical daily practices that were traditional at Washington. Many struggled to keep on weight and maintain the personal balance required of the sport.
But head coach Al Ulbrickson ‘26, himself a two-time National Champion at Washington in 1924 and 1926, knew his 1936 team had potential. Both his 1934 and 1935 frosh teams – coached by ’26 classmate Tom Bolles - were IRA Champions, so there was no shortage of talent on the squad. His first varsity National Championship as a coach, at the 2,000 meter course in Long Beach CA in 1933, had boosted his own confidence at coaching the Olympic distance.
The pieces of the puzzle were all there, but putting it together would be the challenge. Ulbrickson struggled finding the right line-up for his top eight, turning to both Bolles and long-time boat builder George Pocock for counsel and insight. This trio, directed by Ulbrickson’s keen sense for toughness and determination in his athletes, put together a team of sophomores and juniors led by the only senior in the boat: coxswain Bob Moch.
The first test for this team would come on April 18th, his top crew defeating California by open water on the three-mile Sheridan Beach course on Lake Washington as tens of thousands of Seattle fans lined the shore or rode the observation rail cars along the tracks that are now the Burke-Gilman trail. Under-stroking Cal throughout the race, Moch waited until the last half mile to unleash the power of his team, and by virtue of this win, Washington entered the IRA at Poughkeepsie two months later as one of the favorites.
The 1936 IRA National Championship Varsity 8 race is still considered one of the best of all time. Started at 8:00 pm due to water conditions, Cal, Navy, and Penn all shot off the line in the gathering darkness, and within a mile were lengths ahead of the field. Washington – in the farthest and most unfavorable outside lane – sat five lengths down and Moch could barely see the leaders; they were four lengths down at the midpoint; and three lengths back with a mile to go. At this point stroke oar Don Hume began to increase the stroke rate, the men maintaining the same swing the crew had while rowing the first three miles, and the boat began to move... picking up momentum with each stroke, and entering the final minute of the nineteen minute race closing quickly on Navy and Cal. Stroking higher and flashing through the water, the crew – now rowing at a 39 in an unheard of sprint after four miles – continued to move through the leaders in the last twenty strokes, Washington crossing the finish line a length ahead, completing the first Freshman/JV/Varsity sweep at the IRA in the history of the event. “Never in history has a crew given a more gallant and game fight to win…,” said a proud Al Ulbrickson afterward.
From Poughkeepsie the men traveled to Princeton for the 2,000 meter Olympic trials. On July 5th, having won their preliminary heat, they met a polished Pennsylvania club, New York club, and Ky Ebright's California team for the right to represent the country in the Olympics. The team’s now practiced strategy of "Keep the stroke down and mow 'em down in the finishing sprints" was executed to the letter, casting all three crews out for almost a full length in the first 1,000m, before reeling them back in one by one as the stroke rate increased. In the final 400 meters, the Huskies walked through the Penn crew as Hume took the stroke rate up to a forty, winning by a length going away. "Every man in the boat had absolute confidence in every one of his mates,” said Ulbrickson later. “Heartfelt cooperation all spring was responsible for the victory.”
The coach would not be celebrating long. US Rowing officials pulled him and Pocock aside and advised that Washington would need to pay their way to Berlin, and if not, the Penn team would be glad to go. George Varnell of the Seattle Times, and Royal Brougham of the Seattle P-I, quickly huddled with Ulbrickson, and the next morning newspaper headlines and radio announcers rallied the always supportive Seattle community. Two days later, and after thousands of 50 cent Olympic “lapel tags” were sold on downtown street corners, a $5,000 certified check was airmailed to Al Ulbrickson, and the Huskies were on their way to Berlin.
Two of the men - Gordy Adam and stroke Don Hume – developed signs of a respiratory infection in the weeks prior to competition. Adam would slowly recover in time for the event, but Hume did not. Already one of the smaller oarsmen in the boat, Hume lost fourteen pounds over the course of two weeks. Even so, Ulbrickson had him in the line-up when the team rowed their qualifying heat on August 12th, and the crew rowed an almost flawless race, defeating the favored British by a half-length and setting a new World Record of 6:00.8 in the process. But the grueling pace of the race had taken a toll, and by the morning of the final, Hume was confined to his bed. Ulbrickson, resigned to the fact his stroke could not physically compete, told the team he had no choice but to replace him. The men sat at breakfast and knew their only hope for a gold medal was with Hume setting the pace; Jim “Stub” McMillin stood up from the table and went to his coach, asking him to reconsider. Other teammates joined McMillin, with Joe Rantz pleading with Ulbrickson: “If you put him in the boat coach, we will pull him across the line. Just strap him in. He can just go along for the ride.”
August 14th was not a perfect day on the Langer See; the quartering headwind, combined with a steady, cool rain, was more reminiscent of Lake Washington in March, but Don Hume was back in the stroke seat anyway. Washington was assigned lane six, the lane most exposed to the headwind, while Germany and Italy (with two of the slowest qualifying times) were placed in the favored, shoreside lanes. As the starter aimed his megaphone toward the shore, the Huskies did not hear the start command, and the team was late off the line.
As Germany and Italy moved to the front and exchanged the lead over the first half of the race, Washington sat in last place with open water separating them from the leaders. Fighting the wind in lane six, Moch sensed, with 800 meters to go, the time to move was now. But Hume would not budge, rowing almost in a trance. As Moch searched for any way to get the rate up, Hume suddenly snapped back. At the same time, the geography of the shore was changing, disrupting the lee in which Germany and Italy were racing, and the Huskies began to move, first through Britain, then Hungary, then Switzerland. Fully in rhythm now, the stroke rate continued higher with the team flying as they had all year… and the Husky Clipper surged forward, carried by the confidence, the trust, and the swing of all eight men together. The last 200 meters were a blur, with Hume bringing the stroke rate up to an unheard of 44… the vast crowd chanting "Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land!"… and yet it was in that last 200 meters that the United States went from third to first, crossing the finish line about ten feet in front of Italy, with Germany third.
The exhausted crew rowed in front of the grandstand, then to the dock, where a large wreath was awarded the team and passed from coxswain to bow. The men - physically and mentally spent - stayed in their quarters that night, while halfway around the world the whole of Seattle celebrated. The next day they received their medals in the Olympic stadium; after the games were over, they went home various ways, some choosing to travel around Europe, others going straight home to be celebrated by family and the community at large.
Historically speaking, the 1936 Washington crew would have been memorable without the Olympic victory. By sweeping the Hudson for the first time, the crew established itself as the deepest to date; with the varsity coming from lengths back in the last half mile, it established itself as one of the strongest. But with the almost surreal Olympic victory in pre-war Germany, the crew distinguished itself as one of the all-time best in the history of the sport.
But perhaps the most enduring legacy of this team is what they represent. A group of young men, all from the state of Washington, in the depths of the Depression, coming together as one: “It isn’t enough for the muscles of a crew to work in unison,” said George Pocock. “Their hearts and minds must also be as one. Eight hearts must beat as one.” No crew is a better representation of that statement, or the power and potential of the human spirit, than the 1936 University of Washington Olympic Champion Rowing Team.