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Unleashed: The Huskies Who Stole Gold From Hitler
Release: 07/17/2013
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Sweeping consecutive national championships last month and reaching the finals of the famed Grand Challenge Cup at Henley this month continued the international renown for UW men’s crew. This is the story of where that worldwide acclaim began -- in Nazi Germany.

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

When needed – and given his guys’ intrinsic motivation and fiendish work ethic, it’s not often -- Michael Callahan reminds his Huskies of Washington’s exalted place in international rowing.

The coach emphasizes they have “four years to make a mark on a program that has accom­plished so much in the rowing world. Four years of hard choices. Four years of work. Four years of competition. Four years of frustra­tion. And one last opportunity.”

The Huskies have made more of that opportunity than any American college crew over the last century.

In 2012 UW completed what many felt was a “perfect” season, winning all five men’s finals races at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships. Last month, the Huskies duplicated that feat, sweeping the IRAs in Gold River, Calif. That capped UW’s undefeated season – and won the Huskies an unprecedented seventh consecutive Ten Eyck Trophy for the best overall team score at the national finals.

“It looks almost too easy for Washington,” the race announcer on Lake Natoma called out June 2, as its men’s eight cruised home ahead of Harvard and everyone else in the final race – again.

It was the Huskies’ third consecutive national championship, and fifth in seven IRA varsity eight finals. The last time a crew had such a run: 1909-15, when Cornell also won five of seven IRA titles.

Then on July 6, UW beat Poland’s national team to advance to the finals of the Grand Challenge Cup at the famed Henley Royal Regatta. The Huskies’ unbeaten streak ended the next day when it lost by a length on the River Thames to Great Britain’s national crew. But, hey, it took the British three Olympic champions -- including Pete Reed, who has been out of college for a decade and has been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and 34-year-old Andrew Triggs Hodge, a three-time Olympic gold medalist -- plus a time that was the fastest in the history of a race that began in 1839 to beat Washington’s boys.


"An unwavering work ethic is at the core of our ethos at Washington. Competition and committment is our foundation." 

- Michael Callahan

"An unwavering work ethic is at the core of our ethos at Washington," Callahan says. "Competition and committment is our foundation." That ethos, and the international stature it has created, have roots that stretch 77 years, back to one of the Washington’s greatest athletic accomplishments. It’s one of greatest races ever rowed by an American crew.

The 1936 Washington men’s varsity eight beat the host Germans, co-favorite Italians and everyone else in the world older than it was to win Olympic gold in front of Adolph Hitler at the Berlin Games.

A Hollywood filmmaker is already writing a movie script for Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat,” the book from the publisher Penguin Group that arrived in stores and on online outlets last month.

Well before a release party at the University Bookstore June 4, fellow author David Laskin called Brown’s story of UW’s steel-minded rowers hardened by the Great Depression becoming international heroes “Chariots of Fire with oars.”

In 2007 his neighbor in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Judy Willman, brought a previous book of Brown’s to her father. Joe Rantz lived at his daughter's home for the last 3 1/2 years of his life.

Willman told Brown he really ought to talk to Rantz about her father’s life.

What a life it was.

“The more he talked, the more intrigued and fascinated I became,” Brown said in a telephone interview from his home on five acres in Redmond.

“After two hours of talking to him I was absolutely hooked.”

Rantz told Brown how he was, as Brown said, “cast aside by his family at a young age … left to fend for himself.” Rantz was born in Spokane. His mother died when he was 3. At the start of the Great Depression, when Rantz was 15, his father and stepmother moved the rest of the family and left Joe on his own in Sequim. He spent three years fending for himself, often living with strangers, until an uncle brought Joe to Seattle's Roosevelt High School for his senior year. There, Joe competed for the gymnastics team.

Rantz’s athleticism on the bars at Roosevelt attracted Washington crew coach Al Ulbrickson Sr. That figures; the best crew coaches are notorious for finding ultra-athletic and competitive rowers from many other sports. Callahan and UW’s iconic Director of Rowing Bob Ernst have told me they regularly attend the Washington state high school basketball and volleyball championships to find the rugged, determined personalities they feel they could potentially mold into Husky rowers.

“In rowing, it's not like soccer where the kid has been competing in it since he was four and you can identify the kid. You are recruiting on physiology,” Callahan told me in 2011. “A lot of kids end up switching sports say from football to rowing, and they might have a great physiological gift -- lung capacity or what have you.

“We're looking for personality types. Are you competitive? Do you have a really strong work ethic? So we identify people early and also pretty late, too.”

That’s how Joe Rantz became a Husky – and then an Olympic champion.

Rantz's physical gifts 70 years ago earned the Roosevelt High gymnast a spot on UW's varsity boat in his sophomore season. Willman, Rantz's daughter, recalls Ulbrickson kept trying to demote her father because the new rower's form was inconsistent, "but every time he replaced him with someone else the boat slowed down." Rantz was the last man selected for the varsity-eight boat in 1936.

That was no small feat, as those Huskies were no novices on the water. They had already won three national championships within a decade by the time Rantz got to Washington the mid-1930s. Yet he got right into the seventh seat on the varsity eight.

Rantz never lost a race as a Husky, while he paid his way through UW working summer jobs such on the Grand Coulee Dam as in broiling, Eastern Washington heat. Such work hardened him for the 1936 Olympics, and ultimately for the gold-medal race in front of Hitler and his Nazis at the Berlin Games.

Rantz. Don Hume. George E. Hunt. James B. McMillin. John G. White. Gordon B. Adam. Charles Day. Roger Morris. And coxswain Robert G. Moch. Those sons of loggers, shipyard laborers and farmers -- college guys who swept out Hec Edmundson Pavilion after UW basketball and track events to earn cash for lunch – won the 1936 IRAs by beating archrival California, ending the Bears’ streak of three consecutive national championships. The Huskies then beat the best of the upper-crusters in the Ivy League. They ultimately beat everyone in the country to become the United States’ rowing team for the Berlin Games.

Brown (a graduate of Cal, by the way) writes Washington’s 1936 story as much about the unique backgrounds of its dominant rowers as he does of their victory over the world as Olympic upstarts.

“They were Westerners. They grew up in logging camps and on farms. They were pretty tough,” Brown told me. “They weren’t sons of bankers or lawyers, like many of the East Coast kids they rowed against. They were self-sufficient, for sure.

“They went through this vigorous process just become U-Dub’s team. A couple hundred boys showed up at Washington to try out for the rowing team that year. There was this intense bonding factor that helped make them so good as a team.”

Yet they almost didn’t go to Berlin. It took an 11th-hour, grass-roots fundraising campaign across Washington after the U.S. Olympic trials. That raised $5,000 and paid the Huskies’ way from New York to Germany by steamship.


Those Berlin Games remain known for Jesse Owens wowing Hitler and his Aryan nation on the track.

On Aug. 14, 1936, those Dawgs did the same thing on the water.

The Huskies were left in lane 6 on the outside of the blustery Lake Grunau course for the Olympic finals. The race began with the UW boat still stationary as its competitors sped away. The Huskies couldn’t hear the starting signal from their distant lane over the wind rippling across the lake that was 20 miles south of Berlin, or over the noise of 70,000 fans in attendance that included Hitler and his top Nazi aides.

“Let’s get out of here! The race has started!” Rantz reportedly yelled from inside the UW boat.

Washington was still dead last at 1,000-meter mark, halfway through the race. But then the Huskies zoomed at 44 stokes per minute, faster than they had ever rowed. The Huskies passed Great Britain, Hungary, Switzerland and Germany. Then they passed the stunned Italians in the race’s final 10 strokes.

The Huskies finished their rally from gummed up to gold in 6:25.4, world and Olympic records for an eight-man boat over 2,000 meters. And they needed every stroke to do it. Washington won by a mere six tenths of a second.

Rantz and his teammates returned to UW as national heroes. Rantz won big off the water, too. On the same day in 1939 that he graduated with a chemical engineering degree from UW he married Joyce Simdars. They raised a family of five in the Seattle suburb of Lake Forest Park.

For 35 years Rantz was a chemical engineer at Boeing. He is credited with contributing to the invention of a dust-free workspace known as a “safe room.”

In 1970, Rantz and the Huskies’ gold medalists were inducted into the USA National Rowing Hall of Fame. In 1979, the UW established its Husky Hall of Fame -- and made those golden, 1936 rowers among its earliest members.

In retirement, the ever-charging Rantz made posts and other wooden products from cedar. By now it may not surprise you that he didn’t simply whittle wood sharps someone fetched for him.

“He made another living out finding old cedar logs and dragging them out of the forest,” Brown said, marveling at Rantz beyond his rowing heroism. “He then hand split the wood.

“He hand-carved the cedar fence in my backyard.”

A few months after Brown completed his series of wowing interviews with him for the book, Rantz died of natural causes at his daughter’s home in September of 2007. He was 93, and one of the last remaining rowers from that golden UW moment.

Brown used the documentations the children of Rantz’s teammates kept of their fathers’ gold-medal experiences to give “The Boys in the Boat” its depth of details. In the case of one UW rowing family Brown used a nephew’s collection.

Brown finished writing his book about a year ago. He has included in his promotional works some film footage of the Huskies’ victory at the Berlin Games. That came from Leni Riefenstahl, the German film producer who became Hitler’s favorite filmmaker.

“The Boys in the Boat” is on its way to becoming a film of its own.

In April The Weinstein Company, distributor of the Academy Award-winning, 2011 film The King’s Speech, exercised its option to make Brown’s story into a movie. The filmmakers are writing a script for a future motion picture based upon this book.

That – plus the ongoing dominance by Callahan’s modern-day Dawgs on the water -- would ensure the story of the Huskies’ remarkable 1936 crew team shines on.

“We started here before professional sports developed,” Callahan says of Husky crew, a few feet from where UW’s 1936 Olympic-winning shell hangs inside Conibear Shellhouse.

“And we've been able to carry it on.”

Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of teh U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 200. 

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on each Wednesday.

Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page. 

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