Looking back on “the boys in the boat”

An inspirational story of Norwegian-American pride

rowing crew

Photo: MGM
The blockbuster movie The Boys in the Boat is an inspirational story about overcoming obstacles and working together to realize a goal and make the most of life.

Michael Kleiner
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

There have been many sports underdog movies with dramatic endings. Some films have reached mythic proportions.

None of them have been about crew—until now.

The Boys in the Boat was a bestselling book in 2013 written by Daniel James Brown, a Seattle resident. It tells the story of the eight-oar boat at the University of Washington (UW). All the rowers were white, and most were from working class backgrounds, not knowing where their next meal was coming from or how they were going to pay next semester’s tuition. Some were novices at the sport.

It was a time when crew garnered more attention than college football, with as many as 100,000 people attending the collegiate championships, which were broadcast on the radio. Washington’s rival was University of California-Berkeley, while Ivy League schools were the East Coast powers.

Yet, the UW Husky crew team qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympics and then won gold over Germany and Italy, angering Adolf Hitler, who earlier in the games watched African-American track-and-field star Jesse Owens win four gold medals.

No sport relies so much on synchronicity of movement—while going backward—and is as strenuous. Each seat in the boat has a specific role.

The film premiered Christmas Day 2023. Veteran actor and director George Clooney loved the book and directed the movie.

rowing crew

Photo: Hans Bittner / University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection
The real-life boys in the boat are depicted rowing in Grünau on the Langer See, Germany, 1936.

“My only danger was messing up Dan’s good work,” said Clooney in an interview with PBS’ Sylvia Sy. “Our job was to make sure we captured his vision and the heart of the story.  These films are not easy films to get made anymore because you can’t make them cheap. There’s so much technology. You have to build the boats. You have to train the young men. I like what the story says about us. When we see this, we remind ourselves, that we’re really good when we work together and that we actually root for one another even.”

Brown was given a screening in August and watched with trepidations, but no expectations. “Three quarters of the way through, I found myself sniffling,” said Brown in the same interview. “By the end of the movie I was all teared up. It just really touched me. It was a combination of the camaraderie among the boys, which he captured really well, and that triumphal ending.”

The boys in the boat 

There  were nine boys in the boat: coxswain Bobby Moch (played by Luke Slattery in the movie); Don Hume (Jack Mulhern);  Gordon “Gordy” Belgum Adam (Joel Phillimore); Johnny White (Tom Varey); Charles “Chuck” Day (Thomas Elms);  George “Shorty” Hunt (Bruce Herbelin-Earle); Jim McMillin (Wil Coban);  Herbert Roger Morris (Sam Strike); and Joe Rantz (Callum Turner).

Photo: Museum of History & Industry, Seattle
Gordon Belgum Adam pictured here at the A.S.U.W. Shell House in Seattle in 1936.

Adam was the only UW Husky of Norwegian heritage. His father had an unsuccessful dairy farm after running a grocery store. Moch’s father was a Jewish Swiss immigrant, who was a watchmaker and ran his own jewelry store. “Shorty” Hunt was 6’4”. Three occupations were listed for his father: manager of fleet operations, mortician, and insurance salesman. McMillin stood 6’7” and was the oldest member of the team by 23 days over Rantz. Before going to the UW, he operated a water taxi that transported passengers from liners to the mainland. White’s father was an iron and steel importer, so Johnny was more well off than his teammates. Day’s dad was a dentist. Morris grew up in working-class Fremont neighborhood of Seattle and rowed on the Puget Sound as a child. Hume played football, basketball, track, was president of the Key Club, and was an accomplished pianist at high school in Anacortes, Wash. In his spare time, he rowed his rowboat challenging the wind, tide and waves and rowed to Olympia, Wash., when the family moved back there. His father was executive secretary at the Olympia Chamber of Commerce and a bookkeeper.

Rantz had the most compelling story and is the focal point in the book and movie. His mother died when he was 4 years old and the family lived in Hoovervilles, Depression-era housing for the poor, named for President Herbert Hoover. Rantz’s father remarried, and the stepmother was verbally abusive to Joe. One day, a 15-year-old Joe returned home to find the car loaded up and the family moving on without him. In the early part of the film, he is living out of a car while at UW.

Author Brown was unaware of his famous neighbor until he had a homeowners’ organization meeting at his house. Rantz’s daughter came up to him afterward and said he had to talk to her father.

Brown was overwhelmed with Rantz’s story and told Rantz he’d love to write a book about him. Rantz said he had to write about the “boat,” meaning all the members. In the book, Brown writes about each rower in detail. He also juxtaposed what was happening in Germany at the same time.

Photo: University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection
“Dour Dane” Al Ulrickson led his “boys in the boat” to victory at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

“One of the first things I learned about these guys was how much they loved each other throughout their lives,” said Brown. “I was writing this 60 to 70 years after the fact. As the last few died one by one, they were grieved deeply, because they had this enormous bond among themselves.

“[Young] Joe learned that he had to do everything by himself for himself and in his own way. He had to make this transformation from rugged individualism to cooperation. What part of the book and movie are about is this arc from being an alienated, angry, dissatisfied individual to becoming part of something bigger than himself.”

Over 70 students answered the call for crew tryouts, most not knowing how many spots were available. The other lure was if you made the team, you got a part-time job and housing.

The coach was 33-year-old Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), a former Husky rower, who had been coaching since he was 24. He was known as “Dour Dane,” a nod to his disposition and heritage.

One of Rantz’s jobs was helping the English boat builder George Pocock (Peter Guinness) build the team’s shell—Husky Clipper—learning about all the elements that went into the construction.

Ulbrickson’s critical decision

Before the 1936  collegiate championships, Ulbrickson made the controversial decision to take the junior varsity/freshman crew. The collegiate championships were on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Not only did they have to transport the shell, but they traveled by train.

The winner would advance to the Olympic trials in Princeton, N.J., and the winner there would receive the bid to the Olympics.

Adam was part of an Olympic oral history project in 1988. The course at Poughkeepsie was 4 miles, at Princeton, 2,000 meters.

“What we did was row about the way we did in the long races, conserved our energies in the early parts of the race and turned it on at the finish,” recalled Adam. “That worked for us, and we won the Olympic trials.

“We never talked about the Olympics. We had our minds on the next goal ahead, not some pie-in-the-sky thing that might happen months later. Our coach probably had the Olympics in the back of his mind.”

After winning on the water, Ulbrickson was infuriated when he learned they would have to raise $5,000 to go or Cal or University of Pennsylvania would replace them. The movie said “in a week” and that the Cal coach paid the difference to reach the $5,000. Adam said they raised it overnight, and in an obituary about McMillin, he says it was a two-day deadline and “thanks to the people of Seattle, raised $7,500.”  There had also been fundraising to finance the trip to the East Coast.

Photo: University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection
The A.S.U.W. Shell House in Seattle about 1936, as depicted in the 1937 University of Washington Tyee yearbook, looks much the same today.

The Olympics

The entire U.S. Olympic team traveled together on the USS Manhattan to Germany.

“When you’re making a movie like this, you can’t be smarter than we were at the time,” said Clooney. “In 1936, some people had read Mein Kampf [Hitler’s autobiography]. Some people knew what was happening, but you never really would have known how far that would go in 1936. We had to be careful not to be too aware. Americans didn’t like Hitler. They thought he was an autocrat and dangerous. They didn’t know enough. We had to be very careful to make everyone else aware of who Hitler was at that point in history.”

The Germans “sanitized” things, removing any reference to anti-Semitism. Nazi banners hung from almost every building. The Germans enthusiastically welcomed the Americans.

“When the ship docked in Hamburg, there was an enormous crowd at pier-side, with bands and welcoming speeches,” said Adam. “I don’t know whether the citizens were ordered out to attend the event or whether they were just that enthused about the Olympics and the American team. Then a fleet of buses took us to the city hall where there was more reception, some champagne toasts. Then we boarded a train for Berlin. I could easily say 100,000 people lined that parade route just to welcome the team to Berlin.

“We, as athletes, or at least on my part, didn’t think much about the political aspects. We were quite aware that Hitler was running the country under a rather strict, ordered regime. There seemed to be no crime in the streets; everything was orderly, everything happened on time, everything was running right, the streetcars and the elevated railroad.

“All the facilities were new. The crowds were tremendous at the games. One thing that impressed us was that when Hitler entered the stands, he had a box that he occupied. A little flag was raised when he was in attendance. The minute that flag went up, the entire stadium erupted with ‘Heil!’ It couldn’t have been turned on with a switch any better than that spontaneous reaction. They were behind Hitler. Another thing we noticed all over Berlin was that wherever you went or whoever you bumped into, nobody said ‘hello.’ They said, ‘Heil Hitler!’ Once in a while we would answer them, ‘Heil Roosevelt!’”

Hume came down with a serious cold, and he wasn’t able to practice. Somehow, he made it to the semifinals and final, though he was not in top shape. Adam and someone else (unidentified) had also come down with colds.

The Americans outraced Great Britain in the semifinal but were upset when they were given an outside lane for the final. It was supposed to be a random draw, but Germany got the best lane. The German and Italian teams had been subsidized by their governments. The German crew were lieutenants in the German Army with promises of promotions to captain if they won. The Italians had two rowers who had been at the 1932 Games. This is what the Americans faced. The race was on the second to last day of the Olympics, so Owens had already made his stand.

crew

Photo: University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection
The University of Washington varsity crew crossing the line in first place (in distance) with Italian and German boats in the foreground, Grünau on the Langer See, Germany, Aug. 14, 1936.

The weather was gloomy with a crosswind.

“We were in the outside lane and were more affected by the wind than anybody else,” said Adam. “The Germans and the Italians had a more protected lane … When we finally got into the calmer water near the finish line, I think that was one of the things that helped us. We were far behind early in the race. At the halfway mark we were about a length behind, and Italy had just made a big drive and moved out to about one length ahead of us. We began to gradually catch up a little bit, but by the time we began to near the finish line the noise from the crowd was so great that we couldn’t hear our coxswain.

“We couldn’t hear a sound except the large crowd chanting ‘Deutschland!’ at the top of their lungs. It was just a din. We were enough of a team, we just sensed the stroke going up without being really told and edged them out by about 10 feet. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any closer because they didn’t have a photo-finish in those days; it was an eyeball judgment. And I expect that if we had won by two or three feet they might have come up with a different answer. But it was enough to be decisive, just barely, with Italy second and Germany third.”

A few weeks later, Adam was part of a ticker-tape parade up Broadway in New York City  honoring the U.S. Olympic team.

Adam went on to become a mechanical engineer with a successful career. He died in 1992 at 76 years old. The last of the crew to pass was Morris in 2009 at 94. Rantz died in 2007 at 93.

Following generations

The years and generations go by, they left to continue the story. Rich and Diane Olsen’s daughter, Christy Olsen Field, is a former editor-in-chief and food editor at The Norwegian American. Rich’s great-grandmother, Anne (Belgum) Kelly, was the sister of Gordy’s mother, Rose Belgum Adam. They were two of the eight children of Britt Vold Belgum and Hendrik Thoresen Belgum, who were born in Norway in the Fagernes area of Valdres. Gordy’s father, David Hay Adam, came from Scotland. Rich is first cousin twice removed from Gordy.

“I never met Gordy. I just remember that my grandfather (Anton Belgum Kelly) and my mom (Jewel Ann Kelly Olsen) told me that we had a cousin who raced in the Olympics and got a gold medal,” said Rich. “That’s as far as I knew. My grandfather was about 10 years older than Gordy. He used to spend the summers with Gordy at their farm up in Bellingham, Wash.”

The Olsens possess the only memento from the 1936 Olympics. Gordy brought back a cobalt blue ashtray with the Olympic rings and Berlin on it for his father. It went to Rich’s grandfather, then his mother.

“When my mom was getting up in age, I asked, ‘When you pass, could I have that?’’ said Rich. “She said, ‘Yeah, that’s yours.’ It’s a very cherished family heirloom to have a souvenir from Berlin.”

A close-up of the Olsen family’s prized souvenir ashtray from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Rich Olsen’s great-grandmother was the sister of champion Gordon “Gordy” Belgum Adams’ mother.

Photo courtesy of Rich and Diane Olsen
In a recent snapshot. Rich Olsen proudly displays the ashtray that was passed down to him.

Diane rowed for a year at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.

“I actually rowed in Pocock racing shells myself,” she said. “You carried them over your head and lowered them very carefully. The Pocock boats were treated with utmost respect, because we knew who made them. I only did crew for one year, but it was a great experience.”

With a book and movie, the Olsens learned more about their cousin and the others in the boat.

“The pride in the family is still there for Gordy,” said Rich. “It’s a very proud moment. His sisters have seen the movie twice and want to see it again. They’re really into it as well. The family hasn’t forgotten Gordy.  I know better now than we did say 20, 30 years ago. The book has introduced us to this long-lost cousin.”

Timely

The book and movie are not just about sports. They are about the attempted use of sports as propaganda and then sports as defying that propaganda. Sports did not bring down the Nazi regime. Three years after those Olympics, Hitler invaded Poland, igniting World War II, the annihilation of 6 million Jews and others considered not worthy.

We must be on guard. With Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the rise of anti-Semitism, islamophobia, racism, and the rise of extreme political movements in some countries, including our own, there is fear.

“I was very aware, even 10 years ago, there were dark forces on the rise in America,” said Brown. “That’s gotten worse as the intervening 10 years has passed. I think the book was timely when I wrote it, and it’s timelier now.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.