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“The Boys in the Boat” captures the importance of unity in rowing

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Illustartion by Sean Rogers


Before college, I knew nothing about rowing, but I was interested in trying it since St. Olaf had a rowing club. After joining the club, I have had the opportunity to experience the rhythm of a boat on glistening water. Rowing is an experience that holds a special place in my heart. When I heard about “The Boys in the Boat,” I had to watch the film.


This film is based on the novel “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” written by Daniel James Brown, and  published in 2013. The adaptation of the film was then released in 2023 and directed by George Clooney.


This true story follows a college rowing team’s expedition to the Olympics. The main character, Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), is a struggling student at the University of Washington. His father abandoned him at a young age and left him with nothing. Joe is left to pay for college on his own. Finding work is difficult due to the Great Depression, and he must pay off his tuition otherwise he will be forced to drop out. Soon enough Joe comes across an ad that is recruiting new players for the college’s junior varsity rowing team. Joe desperately wants this position so he can pay off his debt. Little did he know, this would be the beginning of something extraordinary.


Once Joe makes the team, the coach, Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), immediately begins preparing the players for their first regatta. They are put through intense workouts and row nonstop for hours. I could sense the throbbing pain they were experiencing. Every inch of your body will be in immense pain after rowing at full speed.


I felt extremely nervous about their first regatta against the University of California Berkeley. The second the competition began, the teams charged after the finish line. After each stroke, sweat was dripping down their face and they winced in pain but never stopped rowing. I expected someone to catch a crab or pass out in the boat. My heart was pounding against my ribs as I watched Joe and his teammates cross the finish line first.


This win just wasn’t enough for Coach Ulbrickson though. So, he decided to send the JV team instead of varsity to the Olympics in Berlin. In 1936, Berlin was under Nazi rule. There was a lot of controversy around the Olympic Games proceeding. Germany’s rowing team won five out of six gold medals in rowing events. The last event was the eights with a coxswain. This last race was tight, but Berlin ended up in third, Italy was second, and the USA brought home the gold medal. This was a historical win for the University of Washington and the United States given the political situation. 


An important aspect of this story is that the team was made up of working-class men. Many of them went into the rowing team hoping to earn money to pay off bills. However, they developed a special bond that allowed them to excel in rowing. There were stressful moments when they were ready to quit, but they remembered how hard they worked together.


At the end of the film, Joe leaves the audience with a memorable line: “We were never eight. We were one.”