Joe Rantz was born in 1914 in Spokane, Washington, and rowed in the 1936 Olympics.
Rantz’s mother died when he was three. At the start of the Great Depression, when Rantz was 15, his father and stepmother abandoned Joe. Without telling him where they were going they drove away in the family car while he watched the tail lights disappear in disbelief. In Rantz's words, "The whole thing was over in five minutes."
Cast aside, Rantz spent three years living alone in a half-finished home in the Oregon backwoods, fending for himself. To eat, he foraged for edible mushrooms and blackberries. He fished with a make-shift pole in local streams. He sold fish he caught at the back doors of markets, sometimes bartering them for what he needed. He did every odd-job a 15 year old could find. He dug out stumps in pastures, split fence rails, loaded barns and worked part-time as a logger. It was backbreaking work.
Despite the lack of parents or guardians, he still attended the nearest high school. But at the end of every day he was stoically alone, eating on and rewashing the same plate each night.
After three years of surviving like this, an uncle found him, took him in and brought him to a real home and a new high school. But there was no news about Joe’s father and stepmother.
At the new high school, Joe competed for the gymnastics team his senior year. Rantz’s athleticism on the bars attracted the University of Washington’s crew coach, who by chance happened to be visiting the high school one day for other reasons. The coach encouraged Rantz to attend the University of Washington and try out for the crew team.
Rantz was admitted to the University of Washington, and he made the crew team. But he had to pay his own way with money scraped together from summer construction jobs and part-time jobs during the school year.
His living quarters for his four years at the University of Washington was a closet-sized room in the basement of the local YMCA. Unlike well-dressed classmates, Rantz wore the same faded sweater almost every day, and it became fodder for campus conversation. But Rantz silenced his fashion critics when he was the last man selected for the prestigious varsity-eight boat in 1936.
The 1936 varsity boat was perhaps the best varsity boat in University of Washington history. It was made up of the sons of loggers, shipyard laborers and farmers. They beat archrival Berkeley, ending Berkeley’s streak of three consecutive national championships. Washington then beat the best of the Ivy League. They ultimately beat everyone in the country to become the United States’ rowing team for the eight-man race in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
At the start of the 2,000 meter (1.25 mile) gold-medal race, the University of Washington crew, in a boat named Husky Clipper, was in the farthest lane from the starter, and they did not hear the starting signal over the noise of the 70,000 fans in attendance that included Adolf Hitler and his top Nazi aides.
Washington was still dead last halfway through the race. But then the crew drew on a mysterious reservoir of power and cranked its pace up to an inconceivable 44 stokes per minute for the remaining half-mile. Their hearts were now pumping at over two-hundred beats per minute. They passed Great Britain, Hungary, Switzerland and Germany. With blades swinging in perfect synchronicity, they then passed the stunned Italians in the race’s final 10 strokes.
Washington went from a gummed up start to a gold medal photo-finish and setting the world and Olympic records. It won the race by a mere six tenths of a second, or by about three feet.
Rantz’s father, and the rest of the world, had listened to it all on the radio.
The book The Boys in the Boat is about Rantz and his improbable, circuitous journey from crushing early struggles to Gold Medalist in the greatest race in Olympic rowing history.
Rantz graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Chemical Engineering. He passed in 2007.
The finish of the eight-man, 2,000 meter gold medal race, 1936 Olympics