The Americans’ story, in The Boys in the Boat, of the 1936 Berlin Olympic 8-man rowing race for the gold was so riveting, frustrating and exciting that I could barely get through the race chapter (called “Touching the Divine.”) I don’t know that I would’ve been able to, except that I knew the outcome of the race before beginning the book.
The chances of the boys in the boat for the gold medal looked doomed. They had a drafty, cold place to sleep. The race was rigged, in that the best lane assignments were given to the host country (Germany – a few years before WWII) and to Hitler’s buddy-country, (Italy), rather than by qualifying times. Their own stroke man was so ill he was practically in a coma during the actual race. The starters were out of view from the coxswains, causing the race to begin before the boys knew it. It was a mess. They won anyway.
They found that Joe had been lying awake there all night. He had spent much of the night simply staring at his gold medal, contemplating it as it hung on the end of his bunk. As much as he had wanted it, and as much as he understood what it would mean to everyone back home and to the rest of the world, during the night he had come to realize that the medal wasn’t the most important thing he would take home from Germany.
Immediately after the race, even as he sat gasping for air in the Husky Clipper while it drifted down the Langer See beyond the finish line, an expansive sense of calm had enveloped him. In the last desperate few hundred meters of the race, in the searing pain and bewildering noise of that final furious sprint, there had come a singular moment 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, ho 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.
…Now he felt whole. He was ready to go home.
(p. 355, Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown).