The Boys in the Boat: Important quotes with page
1. “‘But it’s not just about me. It has to be about the boat. ’” (Prologue, p. 3) When Brown first meets Joe Rantz, he tells Joe that he’d like to write a book about Joe’s experiences. Joe is quick to correct Brown—any book about the 1936 Olympics must be about the whole boat, not just Joe. This quote sets up the theme of teamwork and shows how the individual becomes superseded by the collective in rowing.
2. “The very heart of the Olympic ideal—that athletes of all nations and all races should comingle and compete on equal terms—was antithetical to his National Socialist Party’s core belief: that the Aryan people were manifestly superior to all others. ” (Chapter 1, p. 20) Here, Brown dissects the irony of Nazi Germany hosting the 1936 Olympics. Hitler, with a manifesto based on the superiority of one ethnic group, is the last person who should be tasked with hosting an event meant to bring nations together. Though Hitler does not believe in Olympian ideals, he sees a way to use the event as a PR stunt for his regime.
3. “Home, it was beginning to seem, was something you couldn’t necessarily count on. ” (Chapter 2, p. 31) Joe’s early experiences—such as losing his mother and being abandoned by his father—imbued him with a strong sense that home is temporary and fleeting. Joe learns that to feel belonging is to set oneself up for heartache and so resolves not to count on anyone or anything but himself.
4. “He went back upstairs and told his son he would have to move out of the house. Joe was ten. ” (Chapter 2, p. 37) This is major moment in Joe’s life. His father chooses to side with Joe’s abusive stepmother, Thula, and leave his small child alone in the world rather than confront his wife. Harry Rantz chooses his wife over his helpless child, and this betrayal will greatly affect Joe’s perception of the world.
5. “He was sick and tired of finding himself in this position—scared and hurt and abandoned and endlessly asking himself why. Whatever else came his way, he wasn’t going to let anything like this happen again. ” (Chapter 4, p. 59) After Joe’s family abandons him at the old house and moves away without him, something in Joe hardens. This hardening of Joe’s heart will affect the way he relates to his teammates and others throughout his life.
6. “Ulbrickson waited for the younger, less experienced boys to fade. Instead of fading, though, a half mile from the shell house the freshman suddenly began to pull ahead, grabbing a quarter-length lead. ” (Chapter 6, p. 85) This is the first sign that the freshmen boys, Joe included, are something special. Though Ulbrickson expects them to tire and fade, they only grow stronger, pulling ahead of the varsity crew. Here, Ulbrickson realizes he may have something unique and fantastic on his hands.
7. “…from the time an oarsman steps into a racing shell until the moment that the boat crosses the finish line, he must keep his mind focused on what is happening inside the boat. His whole world must shrink down to a small space within the gunwales. ” (Chapter 6, p. 90) Brown describes the mindset needed for an oarsman to row well. Nothing outside of the boat can exist—not one’s family troubles, money worries, or anything else. In the description of the Olympic race, Joe recounts this mindset exactly, not worrying or thinking about anything else except the boat and the water.
8. “But watching the varsity race drove the lesson home for Joe. To defeat an adversary who was your equal, maybe even your superior, it wasn’t necessarily enough just to give your all from start to finish. You had to master your opponent mentally. ” (Chapter 7, p. 106) Joe, who has been relying on his strength, rather than tactics, to get him through races, discovers something vital about rowing. There is a psychological element to the sport; it requires more than brawn or even determination—it requires smarts and strategy.
9. “Joe was fascinated, intrigued by the idea that he could learn to see what others could not see in the wood, thrilled as always at the notion that something valuable could be found in what others had passed over and left behind. ” (Chapter 8, p. 126) Brown speaks often of Joe’s fascination with what the rest of the world leaves behind. Joe himself is frequently passed over or left behind by others, and so finds comfort in the fact that trees or edible mushrooms have such beauty, value, and worth, because it means that he himself has value and worth, even if others don’t see it.
10. “Right now, he needed them to be thinking about building up their bodies, developing mental discipline, learning how to get an oar in and out of the water without splashing half of Lake Washington into their shell. They were good, but they were still green. ” (Chapter 8, p. 128-129) Though Joe and his team are enormously talented, this quote serves to remind the reader that they are still young and mostly untested. Even the greatest of athletes require intense training to compete at the highest level.
11. “There was more potential in this room, he said, than he had ever seen in a shell house in all his years of rowing and coaching, more than he ever expected to see again in his lifetime. Somewhere among them, he told the boys, was the greatest crew that Washington had ever seen. ” (Chapter 9, p. 150)
Ulbrickson sees that he has something special with these boys and this is the first time he shares his insight with the boys themselves. After working them hard and requiring absolute excellence, he reveals to them just how special and talented they truly are. Ulbrickson has been looking toward the Olympics for some time, and now he invites the boys to do the same.
12. “Joe asked if he could come by and see [his half-siblings]. Harry looked down at his lap and said, ‘I don’t reckon so, Joe. ’ Deep down in Joe’s gut, something surged—anger, disappointment, resentment, he wasn’t sure what, but it was old and familiar and painful. ” (Chapter 9, p. 161) Having located his estranged family so close to his own college, Joe asks his father’s permission to see his young half siblings. Harry refuses, dredging up memories of all of Harry’s other betrayals, his support for Thula over Joe, his eviction of Joe from the house at ten, and his ultimate abandonment of Joe at fifteen. Once again, Harry has hurt his son to please his wife.
13. “The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self. ” (Chapter 10, p. 179) Again, Brown uses the rowing team as an example of how the needs of the self can be subordinated to the needs of a team. Each rower must put aside their own feelings, hurts, and needs and row for the greater good, the good of the entire team.
14. “A successful quest for Olympic gold would require finding nine young men of exceptional strength, grace, endurance, and most of all mental toughness. They would have to row almost flawlessly in long races and short, under all kinds of conditions…They would have to perform under immense psychological pressure on the most prominent stage in the sport, in full view of the whole world. ” (Chapter 12, p. 213)
As Brown details the many qualities necessary for an Olympic rower, it becomes clear to the reader that it is not enough to be strong or technically proficient. Joe and the rest of the boys must also be able to withstand external pressure and internal doubt, and to row just as well in sleet and rain as they do in sunshine on still water.
15. “When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart. He turned to Joe. ‘Rowing,’ he said, ‘is like that. And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.
Do you know what I mean, Joe? ’” (Chapter 12, p. 215) While he is mentoring Joe, George Pocock mentions that in rowing, one leaves a part of themselves behind. It is impossible to row at the highest level and stay detached. Truly great rowers invest their hearts and souls in the race, and that is something Joe has so far been unable to do, either on the water or off of it.
16. “What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. ” (Chapter 13, p. 235) Pocock explains to Joe that unless he learns to trust and open up to his teammates, he will never be a truly good rower. Harmony requires vulnerability, something Joe has defended himself against ever since his father kicked him out of the house at ten. But Joe desperately wants a place on the team, and so must learn to accept vulnerability and truly engage with his teammates.
17. “And as he stood in the rain, Joe’s feeling began to shift—moving around like notes on a musical staff, bits and pieces of new themes starting to fall into place. ” (Chapter 13, p. 235) This is a moment when Joe truly changes. With Thula dead, he is unsure of whether to trust his father again. But after helping his father build a new house, playing with his siblings, and bringing Joyce into his tentative, fractured family, he realizes that he wants love, understanding and familial warmth. The cold persona he developed after his father’s abandonment is melting and the real Joe is emerging in its place.
18. “The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility—the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole—and humility was the common gateway through which they were able now to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before. ” (Chapter 13, p. 241) Brown points out that the Washington boys have something their competitors do not—humility.
This humility was gained from their own childhood poverty and struggles, something Yale’s sons of industry and politics never faced. It is because of this humility that the Washington boys are able to band together and work as hard as they do.
19. “Years later, as old men, they all remembered the moment…They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly. They were rowing as if on another plane, as if in a black void among the stars, just as Pocock said they might. And it was beautiful. ” (Chapter 14, p. 259) Here, Joe and his teammates experience a moment of perfect synergy. They are not racing, not trying to beat another team, but simply rowing together in harmony, enjoying the simple act of working together, removed from any kind of competition.
20. “The Washington boys were rowing as if in a kind of trance now, somehow detached from themselves yet keenly aware of one another’s every minute motion…There was almost no pain. In the number five seat, Stub McMillan realized with astonishment that he was still breathing through his nose after three full miles of rowing. ” (Chapter 14, p. 269)
This quote shows the boys in another moment of perfect harmony, and also displays Bobby Moch’s excellent ability as a coxswain. He has managed to set a stroke rate that has left Stub McMillan breathing through his nose after three miles, rather than gasping for air. Each member of the team, Bobby included, has contributed to a flawless race.
21. “‘I am proud of you. Every son and daughter of Washington is proud of you…Never in history has a crew given a more gallant, game fight to win the most coveted rowing honor at stake in this country than the varsity did today. And I can only say to you that I am proud and very happy. ’” He paused and looked around the room and then concluded, “‘I never expect to see a better rowed race. ’” (Chapter 14, p. 273)
Ulbrickson praises the boys for an excellent race, and makes it clear that they are not just racing for him, but that they are racing for all the people of Washington, who have been watching their growth and success from the very beginning. The boys have reached the pinnacle of their abilities, and perhaps the pinnacle of rowing in general.
22. “What had been a dream was a reality. Their boys were going to the Olympics. For the first time ever, Seattle was going to play on the world stage. ” (Chapter 15, p. 283) Seattle, once considered a semi-rural backwater, is sending athletes to the world Olympics for the first time in its history. This is not just an important moment for the boys, but an important moment for Seattle and the state of Washington, which will now be on par (at least athletically) with the more moneyed Eastern states.
23. “They were now representatives of something much larger than themselves—a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. ” (Chapter 15, p. 289) In this quote, Brown makes it clear that the boys do not simply represent America as athletes; they represent American ideals like liberty and justice. These values, so absent from Nazi Germany, are key to who the boys are as people, and will guide them through to their eventual victory.
24. “When Al Ulbrickson arrived on the float, he crouched down next to the boat, and, with a cryptic smile, quietly said, “‘Well done, boys. ’” Joe had never heard his coach speak in quite that tone of voice. There seemed to be a hushed respect in it. Almost deference. ” (Chapter 17, p. 332) Ulbrickson, a famously reticent man and not prone to praising his boys, congratulates them on their amazing race in the preliminaries. For the boys, hearing such praise from Ulbrickson is a major moment. He has ceased to be their coach and has become another fan.
25. “In the American boat, it took a moment for the boys to understand the German announcements. But when they did, their grimaces of pain turned suddenly to broad white smiles, smiles that decades later would flicker across old newsreels, illuminating the greatest moment of their lives. ” (Chapter 18, p. 351) The boys win the 1936 Olympic gold medal in eight-oared rowing and, despite the fact that they are in pain, exhausted, and that Don Hume has fainted, this is the greatest moment of their lives.