If all the scandals about our athletic superstars makes you weary, think about the examples these men set.
With all the recent athletic scandals in the US, Americans want models of integrity. They are tired of the cheating, abuse and sleaze in their teams and standouts and yearn for more honest, admirable athletes. Just in time comes The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, an uplifting, continuously bestselling book about spiritually-minded sportsmen of the Greatest Generation. They can inspire us today.
The Boys in the Boat tells of the famous 1936 Berlin Olympics crew team from Seattle’s University of Washington. This is the crew that shattered records, stereotypes, and Hitler’s hopes for his “Aryan race” to conquer its opponents in Nazi Germany. Beyond a story of mere physical prowess, however, the book highlights the nobility—the spirituality— of this underdog team.
It may not read that way at first. The story details the competitive selection process and the grueling, painful practices in rain, cold and darkness. It dramatizes a sharp rivalry— first between the University of California at Berkeley and the Washington boys—and then the greater rivalry of West Coast novices against the East Coast establishment of Ivy League blue bloods. There is poverty, abandonment and loneliness for oarsman and main character Joe Rantz when his mother dies and a new stepmother convinces the family to exclude him from their home when just a boy. His later childhood and early college years become a tale of endless foster homes, homelessness and just making it on his own.
Yet, Joe is an endearing character to rally around. The tender love affair with his about-to-be wife, Joyce, lifts the muscle and moodiness of the book to more inspiring levels. He and his teammates overcome their handicaps because they are made of “spiritual” stuff: humility, fidelity, grit, all expressions of a good God. A turning point for Joe comes when he replaces fear and self-doubt with selflessness. He begins to trust that his teammates will not let him down. Thus united, the boys in the boat power on as one, no matter what the challenges.
But did these moral and physical strengths come from sheer will power? Or, did their excellence point to a higher source outside themselves?
One hint comes from famous shell designer George Yeoman Pocock, whose boat building studio nearby allowed him to be a much loved mentor to the boys. Pocock was the first to recognize the spiritual potential of crew as a sport.
“It’s a great art, is rowing,” said Pocock. …” when you’re rowing well, it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. [Sic] Which is your soul.” In other words, these innate abilities were more than physical or moral: they were the “kingdom within” as an ancient Biblical text puts it.
But did this connection to God—this spirituality— help the boys in their later lives? Specifically, were they healthy? Were they happy? Were they successful in life after the races were over? Yes, yes and yes.
The Washington boys evidenced excellent health with only one serious illness and one smoking habit reported in the book. Their marriages were long and strong. Coxswain Bobby Moch graduated magna cum laude and eventually argued a case before the Supreme Court. Others became professionals, presidents of organizations and accomplished businessmen.
Annual picnics with the group’s growing families kept the support system in place, and the deep love they felt for each other never waned through the years. Incredibly, Joe Rantz forgave and reconciled with the family who’d rejected him. They listened at home with pride as he and his teammates rowed to Olympic victory.
All this success proves what another bestselling author writes about spirituality: “…self-denial, sincerity…and persistence alone win the prize, as they usually do in every department of life.” (Mary Baker Eddy)
Author Brown was in awe of this team of unassuming boys who would later return to Germany as soldiers to conquer Hitler. In the end he writes,
“They are almost all gone now—the legions of young men who saved the world just before I was born…I was swept with gratitude for their goodness and their grace, their humility and their honor, their simple civility and all the things they taught us before they flitted across the evening water and finally vanished into the night.”
But of course, the boys did not vanish. How could they? We have their example today as a model for our own athletes as they reach toward uncorrupted excellence, greater health and wholeness. That same spiritual, eternally good nature is everyone’s to express because it is innate. And so, as our athletes express this God-given “kingdom within,” they too can touch the Divine.