71 pages 2 hours read

Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide


The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a work of narrative nonfiction written by Daniel James Brown and published in 2013. The book became a New York Times bestseller and won several awards, including the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. The book also inspired a PBS documentary titled The Boys of ’36.

Content Warning: The source material references the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany, poverty, and the abandonment of a child.


The narrative follows the University of Washington rowing team’s bid for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics amid the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Joe Rantz serves as the central figure, whose personal transformation explores the text’s themes of teamwork, family, and economic class.

The text begins in 1933, when Joe is attending the University of Washington and tries out for the rowing team. Joe, who grew up in poverty, hopes that a spot on the team will keep him in school and give him a chance to prove that he belongs at Washington. His coach, Al Ulbrickson, hopes that the new freshman recruits will give him a shot at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Meanwhile, in Germany, Hitler and his advisors are also preparing for the Olympics; they plan to use the games to create the illusion of their power and sophistication, making it that much harder for the world to challenge the Nazis once they begin their plans for invasion.

Despite punishing workouts in freezing weather, Joe makes it past several cuts to the freshman boat. At the first race against Washington’s rivals, the University of California at Berkeley, the freshman boat exceeds all expectations, setting new records. The freshman boat performs similarly well at the Poughkeepsie Regatta in New York, and Ulbrickson recognizes that he has some talented rowers he can cultivate for the upcoming Olympics. The following year, Ulbrickson makes serious changes to the lineup, shifting the talented sophomores to the varsity boat. However, Joe and his teammates struggle in their new position, and Ulbrickson eventually rescinds his decision. Meanwhile, Joe struggles in his personal life. Though he is deeply in love with his childhood sweetheart, Joyce, his father and stepmother, who abandoned him as a child, still shut him out of their lives.

The varsity boat suffers a series of defeats. After Joe is mentored by George Pocock, Washington’s expert boat maker, he sets aside his hard exterior and connects with his teammates, who finally work together toward a common goal. Joe finds himself in the first varsity boat again as the rowing team heads first to the Poughkeepsie Regatta, then the Princeton Olympic trials. Washington wins both, so Joe and his teammates travel to Berlin to represent the US in the Olympics. As the boys explore Berlin, they take subtle stands against Hitler and the Nazi party.

On the day of the Olympic race, the US team is at a serious disadvantage. Their boat is in the worst lane, the weather is poor, and one of their team members is seriously ill. Nevertheless, they step into the boat as a team. Despite a difficult start due to tricks played by the German officials, Joe and his teammates come from behind, pulling ahead of Germany at the last second and winning the gold medal.

Afterward, Joe graduates from Washington, marries Joyce, and raises a family. He and his teammates get together for informal and formal reunions until one by one, they all pass away. Their story is still told, however, to each new group of freshman rowers at the University of Washington.