Higher Living Reflections

Achieving Swing

Having thalassophobia—fear of deep water—as an integral part of my psyche, The Boys in the Boat is not a book I ordinarily would’ve read. But after a couple of literary-minded friends highly recommended it, I decided to give it a try. I’m thrilled I did because the story is far more than a historical account of the University of Washington’s eight-oar rowing crew’s quest for gold in the 1936 Olympics. It is a tale of grit and determination of working-class young men who struggled and experienced most challenging times throughout their lives but refused to be fated by their circumstances. It’s also a deep dive into the complexity of and philosophy behind the sport, which leads to the most telling aspect for me: It’s an allegory for reaching mental and emotional flow, the point at which all seems to be in perfect harmony, all resistance vanishes, and you feel completely whole and perhaps moving on an ethereal plane.

After reading the Prologue and Chapter One in which the author, Daniel James Brown, paints the background—Seattle during the Great Depression replete with Hoovervilles—and introduces Joe Rantz, the heart of the crew, I knew how much of my waking moments over the next week would be spent.

Four years into the Great Depression, conditions remained bleak for many Americans, twenty-five percent of whom were jobless. Soup lines and shanty towns were regular features across the landscape. The tolls taken on the people weren’t only economic, they were also personal and psychological. Millions were reduced to survival mode. For the downtrodden, how one looked or what they wore was irrelevant. But shabby dress accompanied with an unkempt appearance was a badge of shame and source of ridicule for young men like Joe, who through their never-give-up approach to life, managed to matriculate in a college or university. And that is where we meet Joe as he ambles across the University of Washington campus wearing a rumpled, hand-me-down sweater on his way to try out for what many considered to be an elitist sport in which he had no skill. Making the team wasn’t for Joe an athletic feat to boast about. Failure would’ve meant having to abandon school. And the alternative was not palatable.

Thus, began Joe’s quest. But unbeknownst to him and his cohorts, their undaunted efforts would remake them in ways unfathomable to their young adult minds and elevate them to the nation’s and ultimately the world’s attention.

Rowing in absolute tandem with precise strokes at the exact moment is an art unequaled in sports. As I read, I searched my mind for equivalent competitions or situations. I thought of the “runner’s high” I got, the point where long-distance runners feel like they could run forever not only despite the pain but by embracing it. I reflected on the scene of Paul Maclean, played by Brad Pitt, in A River Runs Through It, perfecting the art of fly fishing. I considered successful sports teams’ need for players to eschew egos given there’s no I in sport. And I pictured the exquisitely graceful synergism of couples ice dancing. But each of them failed to equate to the absolute harmony and perfection of rowing, the moment when a crew achieves swing where they glide their craft across the water seemingly without effort.

The closest metaphor or allusion to swing in eight-oar rowing is a symphony orchestra in which one discordant note destroys an entire piece. In rowing, one discordant note is called “catching a crab.” When that happens, everything gets thrown off, and the team essentially starts anew as they watch their competitors race farther ahead. For the University of Washington’s Huskies crew that faced never-ending obstacles up to and including the Olympics—some de facto, others intentional—nothing short of perfection—swing—would get them the gold.

The psychology behind that physical harmony is complex. It requires the rower to completely repress their ego while at the same time remaining true to their individualism in context of their abilities. It’s a form of what in philosophy is called “conjunction of opposites,” when two opposing truths are equally valid. For me, that is what drove the story home.

Yes, the decidedly non-economic rags-to-riches tale is one for the ages. And Joe’s and his fellow rowers’ inspirational life stories tug at the heartstrings. But it was becoming educated about the intricacies not only of eight-oar rowing but also of swing, and how extraordinarily rare it is reached, that for me put The Boys in the Boat in the rarefied air of numinous storytelling.

The chances of me rowing a boat at the level of swing are the same as me summiting Mt. Everest. Neither will happen. But the image of an eight-person crew rowing in precise synchronicity—that kundalini moment of peak performance—will serve henceforth as a mental visualization for perfection. The ideal to strive for but rarely achieved.

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  • Jess DiCarlo
    April 20, 2023 at 2:45 am

    Wonderful post! I found it because I have a Google alert set up for Boys in the Boat so that I can learn when the movie is released, which I hope is this year.

    An avid rower and writer, I’ve read the book many times, seen the PBS documentary The Boys of ‘36 many times, and am looking forward to the dramatic interpretation of the story.

    I never would’ve commented otherwise, and wanted to let you know how thrilled I am that the book translates for you as a non-rower. I’ve completely lost perspective as a huge rowing fan, so enjoyed hearing your perspective very much. Thank you! And I hope you see and enjoy the movie as much as I’m sure I will.