The Story of the Story: A Review of the Boys in The Boat

Poughkeepsie. Most sports fans have never heard of this word that once filled the sports pages of the major newspapers. Those industrious enough to do a quick Google search of the term will discover a short definition of the word, a map, and a Wikipedia page that contains a few paragraphs about a sleepy town at the edge of the Hudson River. The amazing sports history tied to this term has almost completely faded from the American consciousness.

A Quick Overview

In all honesty, I too knew nothing of the word until I discovered the book, The Boys in the Boat, written by Daniel James Brown. In the span of 403 pages, Brown introduces his readers to the Poughkeepsie regatta and to the western college boys who overcame a world of adversity to best the Ivy League rowing crews at Poughkeepsie before securing Olympic gold in Berlin. I commend the author for rediscovering and then retelling this heroic tale of fortitude and perseverance that was accomplished by Joe Rantz, Roger Morris, and seven other determine, college students. As the pages turn, Brown places the reader on the edges of the Lake Washington, the Poughkeepsie and of the Grunau as he recounts the Washington University’s team’s various training exercises and multiple victories. Brown’s vivid details allow the reader to feel the boys’ powerful strokes as their racing shell, the Husky Clipper, glides past its competitors boats one seat at a time. Brown’s fulfills his mission to tell the narrative of the boys in the boat who made the 1936 Olympics. It is a story well worth remembering.

The Story of the Story

Though the book was phenomenal, I found the need for the book to be as thought provoking as the story printed on its pages. 

As Brown notes, rowing has not always been an obscure pastime. The author reminds us that, “In the 1930s and 1920s, collegiate crew was wildly popular, often ranking right up there with baseball and collegiate football in the amount of press it received and the crowds it drew.” In 1939, 125,000 fans came to watch the Poughkeepsie regatta. Radio listenership for the major rowing races came to rival the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl, and the World Series. Kids even swapped trading cards of their favorite crews.

What exactly happened to the sport of collegiate rowing pushes beyond the bounds of this book. But its modern obscurity remains a fact. Where it not so, this book would not be necessary. The author recounts in the prologue how Joe Rantz’s gold medal had gone missing only to be discovered years later in a squirrel’s nest tucked away behind a wall. Picking up on the anecdote, Brown writes, “it occurred to me that Joe’s story like the medal, had been squirreled away out of sight for too long.” I am thankful that Brown was able to retrieve the story of the Husky Clipper.

Fame Does Not Last

But the fact that Joe and his boat could almost disappear from the American, public consciousness reveals that the philosopher Albert Camus was on to something. Our earthly legacy does depend a great deal on those who survive them. If one generation forgets us, our story can be lost from the halls of history forever. If a team of world-renowned fame can almost completely disappear from the modern consciousness, most of us average Joe’s and bland Betty’s face even worse odds. To quote the wise king Solomon who was reflective in his own right, “the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten (Ecc. 9:5).” If you doubt Solomon, I challenge you to recall the name of your grandmother’s grandmother without referencing your genealogy. How did that go? Don’t feel bad, I can’t do it either. We can all be easily forgotten. To quote Solomon again, “a living dog is better than a dead lion (Ecc 9:4).”

To his credit Joe Rantz was happy to be forgotten. The man who was content to let a squirrel steal his gold medal while he hauled logs down a mountain lived for much more than the fame of the moment. He enjoyed life with his bride and his children whom he loved deeply as evidence by their ability to share Joe’s various stories with Brown. To some degree, I think Joe Rantz understood that life was more than sports fame which can be lost far easier than it can be won.

Solomon also understood this principle, declaring most things to be vanity except the fear of the Lord. The story of Joe’s story reminds us all of the importance of heeding Ecclesiastes 9:13 which offers this overview of human life, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Sports Fame is fleeting. The Fear of the Lord lasts forever. Choose wisely.

Final Thoughts

The story of Joe Rantz and the boys in the boat could easily be one of the best sports stories of all time. Brown should be commended for having preserved this captivating tale for yet another generation of readers. But I find the epistemological meaning found within the story of the story to be of even greater value. To stand atop the platform of eternity, men and women must do more than strain for earthly gold. To achieve that which cannot be destroyed by rust or faulty memories, men and women must heed the wisdom of Solomon and pursue righteousness, trusting God to care for the rest.

In other words, don’t waste your life pursuing that which can be stolen by a squirrel.

Why Big Kids Cry

Why Big Boys CryI LOVED winning baseball games as a kid. Nothing seemed more glorious to my childhood psyche than that $9.50 first place trophy. Yes, my aspirations were pitifully small (this may explain why I had to repeat second grade) but my desires were drenched with passion. I practiced every chance I got; I played hurt at times; and, I publicly challenged my coaches bad decisions. I was all in for the trophy. Finally at the mature age of 11, I snagged I did snag me a championship trophy. Oh the Joy! Sadly, it was short lived. The following year, my team topped out at second. I ended my little league career crying in my dad’s car too angry to speak.

Why The Tears

I mention my own experiences with rec league baseball because they point to an important truth. Nothing will satisfy us other than Jesus. If our kids are living for baseball, good grades, or musical perfection, they will not be satisfied. Their little emotions, self-esteem, and joy will fluctuate drastically with each success or failure. Often kids who lose it when they lose, fail, or make a mistake are not just sensitive. Most are idol worshipers whose idol just got exploded by dose of reality. Because their hope for fulfillment was based on their efforts, they cry.

The Solution For Failure

Despite what Nike commercials say, the solution is not to practice harder or to start earlier. Getting more trophies, more money, and more fame will not make our kids more fulfilled. As Solomon concluded, “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Kids who strive for more and more worldly success will only find more and more emptiness.As David Platt writes,

The desire for more is a trap. As we indulge this desire, it destroys our soul bit by bit. And it may destroy us forever – p. 40.

The solution is to make Christ everything. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27). We should remind our kids that their worth, hope, and joy are ultimately found in Christ! Yes, God has given us sports, knowledge, and the arts. But, we are to use them for his glory and not for our satisfaction. When we try to find satisfaction in stuff, we get only disappointment because we lose sight of God. Jesus said it this way:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. – John 6:53b-57

Nothing other than Jesus will save us. And nothing other than Jesus will make us happy in this life. As John Piper said,

The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God – p.23.

As we gear up for a spring full of activities, let’s encourage our kids to feed on Jesus! Below our three tips for making this happen:

Three Tips For Heavenly Success

  1. Model our dependence for Christ. We need to pray and be in the word regularly. We need to make service to others andcounter culture the worship of God our highest priorities. We need to fight the temptation to find our satisfaction in our kids’ success. And, we need to depend on prayer and scripture when making decisions. In short, we need to find our joy by obeying God’s commands!
  2. Discipline sin. When we see our kids throw tantrums or snap at a coach, we handout suspensions. We end practices for our kids and make them take time off. We help them see that obedience to Christ is a way bigger deal than success. True, our kids may suffer at little on the field or in the classroom. But honestly, this is ok. As Jesus says,

    For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? – Mark 8:36

    My parents disciplined me often for my on field exploits. And because of their faithfulness and because of the Holy Spirit, I came to see that real life was not found on the Baseball diamond.

  3. Ask God to save. Ultimately, only those who the father calls will believe. As the saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink (even if everyone closes their eyes and bows their head and mutters something).” As parents, we can and should expose our kids to the beauty of Christ, but kids won’t embrace Jesus on their own. The Holy Spirit must open their eyes. Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” John 6:44). Pray for God to work.

Works Cited

Piper, J. (2003). Desiring God: Meditations of A Christian Hedonist. Sisters: Multnomah Publishers.

Platt, D. (2015). Counter Culture: a compassionate call to counter culture in a world of poverty, same-sex marriage, racism, sex slavery, immigration, persecution, abortion, orphans, and pornography. Carol Streem: Tyndale House.