Photo sourced from Husky Crew.
Mercifully, every four years, our country gets to come together for a change around the Olympics. For a sweet two weeks, we all get to thrill and watch some marvelously gifted young athletes push their bodies faster, higher, and stronger, and I think it helps us all as we watch their dedication and passion become better at not only what we do, but the way we do it.
I’m just finishing a wonderful book: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. If I knew anything about the 1936 Olympics, I knew it was in Berlin, it was Hitler’s shot at showing the world the superiority of the Aryan race, and Jessie Owens kicked his butt.
What I had never heard was the story of our eight oar rowing crew that year. Remember, 1936 was seven years into the Great Depression, and just as America was starting to crawl out of it in 1935, and employment was improving, the worst drought (three years of no rain across our heartland) sent millions of people—cumulatively called Okies—fleeing the Dust Bowl, walking away from their homes with the front door open and looking for work, any work at any price.
I’ve heard the old timers talk when I was little of the sun blocked out in New York and Boston by the dust, and 300 people in line for ten jobs, but out of that backdrop came the Washington State rowing crew.
Crew rowing was the domain of the elite; Harvard, Yale, Cornell, the privileged sons of senators, lawyers and doctors. Washington’s crew was made up of the sons of struggling, dirt poor north-west loggers, fishermen, and dairymen, their boathouse an abandoned WWI floatplane hangar.
A couple salient inspirations. First, they regularly talked of “M.I.B. or Mind In Boat.” Don’t worry about anything or anyone else; keep your eyes and mind on the man in front of you. They also spoke of “swing,” that state where everyone in the boat was in perfect harmonious sync. When a crew has swing, instead of each man adding his exhaustive effort to propelling the boat forward, each man multiplies the effort of the man in front of him. Multiplication instead of addition, more speed from less effort, and swing is only possible when each man cares more for everyone else in the boat than he does for himself.
Finally, let me quote from a paragraph right after the Washington boys had earned their trip to Berlin (actually, they had to raise the $5,000 themselves because the AOC was broke in 1936.) “In a few days, he would be sailing under her (the Statue of Liberty) on his way to a place where as he understood it, liberty was not a given, where it seemed to be under some kind of assault. The realization that was settling on all the boys settled on Joe.
“They were now representing something much larger than themselves—a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together—mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another—those were also part of what America meant to all of them. And right along with a passion for liberty, those were the things they were about to take to Berlin and lay before the world when they took to the water at Grünau.”
I know that’s what our athletes will be taking to Rio. How I wish everyone in our country could grasp the concept, so this crew called America could start to swing again.