Winning on the water-a book review of Boys in the Boat

The 2020 Olympics were postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the 1936 games in Berlin Germany are historic for a different reason. And it involves the often ignored sport of rowing.

Why do we like books and movies about sports? Have you noticed how many sports stories there are? (This post offers multiple affiliate links to sites that offer a commission to this blog for purchases made there.)

Some sport stories are about fictional characters and situations-

  • Rocky
  • Field of Dreams
  • Bleachers
  • Friday Night Lights
  • Million Dollar Baby

But the ones that most catch our attention and our hearts are those about real people.

  • Seabiscuit
  • Chariots of Fire
  • A League of Their Own
  • The Blind Side

Rowing- athletes in a boat

Most of us know something about the big sports, like football, basketball, and baseball. We probably know less about horse racing, boxing, track, and ice skating. But rowing , rarely if ever on the sports pages or television broadcasts, isn’t one most of us know at all.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

In Boys in the Boat the United States Olympic Rowing team of 1936 beat incredible odds to win the gold medal. But the meat of the book reviews in detail how each man came to be in that boat, especially Joe Rantz. Based on interviews of him by the author, we learn Joe’s painful early family life, struggle to pay for college, and the grueling physical challenges of preparing for competitive rowing.

At that time the sport of rowing was dominated by the sons of wealthy families and the Ivy League colleges they attended. By contrast, the University of Washington athletes who made up the 1936 Olympic rowing team came from working class families and had to work their way through college. That they did so in the midst of a depression makes their achievement even more remarkable.

You may be surprised to learn how much the sport of rowing physically and mentally challenges the human body. To be competitive, the crew’s eight rowers must work synchronously as the leader, known as the coxswain, calls out commands to set a pace that is fast enough to win but sustainable for the length of the race.

Nazi Germany’s Olympic games

Interspersed in the boys’ stories, Daniel Brown outlines the events unfolding in Germany, as Hitler and the Nazi party rose to power. As part of their plan to dominate Europe and eventually the world, they plan to make the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin a showcase of German wealth, knowledge, power, and athletic ability. Specifically, Hitler hoped the German rowing team would beat England and Italy, the teams historically likely to win. The story of his reaction to an American team that not only challenged but upset the status quo completes a book worth reading.

My reaction to Boys in the Boat

From reading this book, I gained an appreciation for this sport that I previously knew nothing about. My husband and I listened to the audio book while on a 12 hour car trip and it kept us interested and entertained. We were inspired by a story where perseverance, courage, loyalty, and commitment were celebrated and rewarded.

This story proves history lessons aren’t dull, boring, or outdated, but can offer us information and inspiration to help us explore the HEART of health

the BOYS OF ’36 documentary

A PBS video documentary The BOYS OF ’36 is available on Amazon Video, free with Prime or available to rent.

Your comments welcome

If you read the book or watch the video, please contact me with your thoughts. I might use your comments in an update.

Dr. Aletha

How Life, Loss, and Love are Illustrated by Sports

The cover featured a photo of a regal looking black man with dreadlocks piled high on the top of his head and a peace sign tattooed on the back of his left hand. Deandre Hopkins played football for the Houston Texans until he was traded to the Arizona Cardinals in what the article called “the biggest-and most lopsided-trade of the NFL offseason.”

I rarely read Sports Illustrated (SI) magazine but one morning Memorial Day weekend while everyone else  in my family was still asleep I did.

In my medical practice and on this blog, I promote sports as a way to maintain health and fitness, but I’d never pursued organized sports myself-not due to lack of interest, but lack of talent-until I discovered the sport side of ballroom dancing. 

Otherwise, I follow my local sports teams, the Olympics, and the big events -the Super Bowl, World Series, and World Cup. And I admire those athletes who achieve special recognition in their sport, especially those who overcome great odds to get there. 

Hands Dealt 

So perhaps that’s what attracted me to  the May 2020  issue my husband left lying on the coffee table. The cover featured a photo of a regal looking black man with dreadlocks piled high on the top of his head and a peace sign tattooed on the back of his left hand. Deandre Hopkins played football for the Houston Texans until he was traded to the Arizona Cardinals in what the article called “the biggest-and most lopsided-trade of the NFL offseason.” 

I don’t understand or care about football trades. I am interested in what Deandre said about his hair. He says he wears it with pride, because

“we, as people, drew strength from our hair. I will never cut mine, because I know who I am. And there’s power in knowing exactly who I am.”

Deandre Hopkins

I thought, He talks like Samson, in the Bible, whose strength came from his hair. No wonder he looks regal. 

Deandre’s background sounds less regal, but may be the true source of his power. He wonders whether being bow-legged as a child forced him to develop better balance.

Deandre grew up poor, one of five children. His mother was left blind when an angry woman, jealous because they were both dating the same man, splashed acid into her face. His father, who sold drugs, died when Deandre was six months old. All of this, and probably more, shaped his mindset. 

Deal with the pain. People you love can make mistakes. Move forward. 

Deandre, Sports Illustrated, May 2020

Maybe that’s why he isn’t angry about the trade, why he helped his mother start a nonprofit to aid survivors of domestic violence, and why he donated $150,000 to COVID-19 relief efforts in Arizona, where he will move when restrictions are lifted.

Trust me, you need to read how these and other events shaped the lives of Deandre and his mother Sabrina Greenlee ,forging

The Unbreakable Bond

WAter wait 

Continuing on, I discovered open-water swimming which I didn’t know was a sport, much less in the Olympics. Ashley Twichell could swim before she could walk. For thirteen years she has worked to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic swim team and at 31 years old, she would have been the team’s oldest rookie Olympic swimmer  since 1908 , if this summer’s games had not been cancelled.  And next year, at 32, she will be the second oldest woman to ever swim on the U.S. Olympic team.

“I’ve always taken it year by year. And now I get even one more year than I was planning on.”

faith of a nation

Deni Avdija, a 19 year old basketball champion from Israel, cannot grow a beard. But he has aspirations to play professional basketball. In the United States. For the NBA. Which even a basketball simpleton like myself knows will be historic.  

Last year his team won the under-20 European Championship in Tel Aviv. Playing in the final against Spain he earned the tournament MVP (Most Valuable Player) award. He fell to his knees as the game ended, thinking of his  grandmother, who had supported him, and  had died of Alzheimer’s a few weeks earlier. He told himself,  

“She gave me this trophy. She gave me the opportunity to win this trophy.” 

I hope he makes the NBA. I might watch him if he plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, they’re just a short turnpike drive from my home.

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Eyes up👀

A post shared by Deni Avdija (@deniavdia8) on

standard of caring

Finally, I name Hayley Wickenheiser, retired ice hockey player, as MVP for this issue of SI. She deserves it on several levels. She earned seven world championship golds.   She played for Canada in five Olympics. She won four Gold medals and one Silver medal. She was admitted to the Hockey Hall of Fame. She even played on a Finnish men’s hockey team. She deserves the unofficial title of history’s greatest female hockey player.

But for me, that isn’t what makes her MVP. Haley sees the coronavirus pandemic from a different perspective; she will soon be Dr. Wickenheiser upon finishing her final year of medical school. She plans to practice emergency medicine.

Hayley serves on the IOC (International Olympic Committee) Athletes’ Commission, a peer-elected board that advises the Olympics’ governing body. In March 2020, she became increasingly concerned about the fate of this year’s Olympic games  as the world became engulfed in the COVID-19 nightmare.

So she took to Twitter demanding the IOC make a definitive plan to give direction to the thousands of athletes in limbo about the games. Her tweets prompted other organizations to make similar demands and by late March the games had been officially cancelled. 

Her concern came not just as an athlete. She said, 

“I couldn’t sit silently anymore, given  what I was seeing in the emergency rooms and hearing from my friends in hospitals across the country.” 

As a student she is not expected or allowed to provide direct care to coronavirus patients. But she stays busy studying, working out, giving hockey tips through Instagram, and using Twitter to encourage social distancing. 

“The calmer we stay, the more we isolate from each other…if we do our part at home and on the front lines, we have a chance to combat this as a mass group of humanity.” 

With Dr. Hayley and her generation of future physicians, I think the world’s health is in good hands.

exploring the HEART of athletes

Thanks for joining me to meet these athletes. I hope you will explore them further and gain new inspiration for your own athletic journeys; we all have one, in one way or another.

Dr Aletha

Dr Aletha lifting arms like an ice skater shadow behind her
Getting inspired while touring the USA Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado

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