Lessons from ‘The Boys in the Boat’ | Greg Asimakoupoulos

My various exposures to rowing over the past five decades proceeded to play out on the walls of my memories as I watched George Clooney’s brilliant motion picture on the big screen.

My wife and I crossed the finish line of 2023 by going to see “The Boys in the Boat.” Given the fact that the theater wasn’t far from the University of Washington campus and on the same weekend as the UW football team won the right to compete in the national championship, the atmosphere was electric.

Seeing the movie on the big screen reminded me of a lazy Saturday morning 10 years ago when I had coffee with Daniel Brown, the author of the book on which the movie is based. My motivation in getting together with him was to have him sign a rowing poster for my brother. Marc had been a coxswain for the Seattle Pacific University crew team. During our visit, Daniel described the lengthy and complicated process it would take should his story ever make it to the big screen.

My brother’s experience at our alma mater was my first introduction to the sport of rowing. I was amazed at the arduous training and strict discipline required to compete at the collegiate level. And I was so proud of my kid brother who ran the five miles and worked out each day at 5 a.m. with his oarsmen. Although coxswains don’t need to be as physically fit as the rowers, Marc joined his team in their daily regimen in order to earn their respect. As a result of his willingness to endure the torturous training with them, they willingly took direction from his 5’6” 130 pound frame during competitions.

My next exposure to rowing came four decades later. I discovered that Carl Lovsted, one of the members of Mercer Island Covenant Church where I was pastor, had won a bronze medal in the 1952 Summer Olympics with the University of Washington four-man crew team. After some coaxing, Carl finally showed me his medal. I was impressed by his humble “aw-shucks” attitude toward such an amazing achievement.

And then in 2013 my wife and I read Daniel Brown’s just-released book about the UW rowing team winning a gold medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. After hearing the author speak, I asked for the privilege of meeting with him over coffee. Not only did Daniel arrange his schedule to meet with me, he directed me to the daughter of Joe Rantz about whom “The Boys in the Boat” is primarily concerned. Judy Rantz Willman willingly accepted my invitation to talk about her celebrated father at the retirement center where I was the chaplain.

A few years later when my friend Carl died, his family asked me to officiate the memorial service at the Conibear Rowing House at the University of Washington campus. I could not have been more honored. Directly above me was the Husky Clipper (in which the 1936 team had won Olympic gold) suspended from the ceiling.

My various exposures to rowing over the past five decades proceeded to play out on the walls of my memories as I watched George Clooney’s brilliant motion picture on the big screen. As I observed the themes in the film of overcoming adversity, self-denial and teamwork I couldn’t help but recognize similar themes I’ve read about and preached from in the New Testament.

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus and his disciples, we find another group of “boys in a boat.” Like the Husky crew of 1936, those first century fishermen struggled with individualism, pride and failure. Like the ragtag wannabees that UW coach Al Ulbrickson transformed into a winning team, the boys in the boat in which Jesus invested were an unreliable group of hotheads. They sought personal glory. And similar to Bobby Mock, the UW coxswain, the rabbi from Nazareth called out self-destructive tendencies and coached them to deny self that they might discover unity. Refusing to simply let them look out for themselves, Jesus repeatedly provided a rhythm of oneness He himself modeled.

In the book and in the movie, the Husky crew team experienced a unity that propelled them to victory much to Hitler’s chagrin. In the New Testament version of “the boys in the boat,” Jesus’ crew overcame their ego-driven personalities in a show of humility and service. Their devotion and discipline culminated in a movement that would shape the values of justice and morality that continue to be embraced two millennia later. It’s called Christianity.

Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is a former chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.