Our History: “The Boys in the Boat” and the University Family YMCA
Last updated: January 9, 2024, at 2:27 p.m. PT
Originally published: January 8, 2024, at 9:11 a.m. PT
By Thomas W. Hull
Life Board Member, YMCA of Greater Seattle
A note from the Y editing room:
You may have heard about George Clooney's upcoming movie adaptation of local author Daniel James Brown's "The Boys in the Boat," but did you know there is a link to the YMCA? Thank you to Life Board Member Tom Hull for sharing a bit of our history and our connections with our community. Please enjoy and uncover the intertwined narratives of the Y, the film, and the enduring spirit of triumph amidst challenges.
What is the YMCA's connection to the "The Boys in the Boat?"
If you look above the door to the facility's exercise studio, you'll find an old wooden oar hanging above a sign identifying it as the Pocock Room. One of the leading figures in the new "The Boys in the Boat" film, George Yeoman Pocock, served many years as board chair of the University Family YMCA. The space was formerly used as a board room and contained a fine oil portrait of Pocock donated to the George Pocock Rowing Foundation.
"Harmony, balance, rhythm, there you have it. That's what life is about." - George Yeoman Pocock.
At the time Pocock served as board chair, he was the country's most famous builder of racing shells. He and his brother emigrated to the U.S. from England with very little money but considerable experience in the art of building wooden racing shells. Pocock wrote and spoke eloquently about the importance of mind, body, and spirit. One of his most famous quotes is, "Harmony, balance, rhythm, there you have it. That's what life is about." His philosophy and values are passionately embraced by today's rowing community, which believes in the importance of the sport serving the greater good.
The central figure in the movie, Joe Rantz, worked as a janitor at the University Family YMCA while he was a student at the University of Washington. The few extra dollars he earned from the job helped cover his school fees and just enough food to survive. Though not fully covered by the movie, Joe's childhood was heartbreakingly difficult. His mother died when he was four years old, and he was abandoned by his father at age fifteen in a logging camp outside the town of Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula. In many ways, Joe is no different from today's youth, for whom the Y strives to provide a fair chance in life.
What is the movie's historical context?
Seattle was a starkly different place in the mid-1930s. Gripped by the Depression, many in the city lived in shantytowns, struggling to survive and dependent on meager offerings from soup kitchens. Rowing was massively popular in that era, and races drew larger crowds than virtually any other sport (the NFL, NBA, and MLS didn't even exist). Races were broadcast live on the radio, and results were reported on the front pages of all the top newspapers. Unlike their New England competitors, the University of Washington rowers were primarily the sons of loggers, anglers, and others of more humble means.
What are some key themes to watch for?
Human spirit – Above all, it's a story of human strength, resilience, and triumph over eternal challenges.
Unity and community – The unity of Joe and his teammates is central to the story, but so is the incredible way the entire city of Seattle rallied to support the team.
Democracy vs. fascism – Like Jesse Owens, Joe and his teammates exemplify the American values and character that helped defeat Hitler.
How does the sport of rowing look today?
Historically viewed as a sport for the privileged elite, the rowing community has worked hard to become more inclusive. Leading this movement is Arshay Cooper, the subject of a powerful and highly regarded documentary movie named after his book, "A Most Beautiful Thing," both available online and well worth watching and reading. Not coincidentally, Arshay keynoted the first YMCA of Greater Seattle Community Conversation after the start of the pandemic. Since the launch of his book and the movie, Arshay and others have pioneered an exciting transformation in the face of the sport, including developing a global network of young rowers of color who are changemakers in their roles as coaches, Olympic athletes and board members. Since the late 1970s, rowers of color have held prominent leadership roles in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movement and the International Olympic Committee (read about Anita DeFranz, former Vice Chair of the IOC and daughter of a YMCA branch association CEO).
A few personal comments…
This story has special meaning to me. I've known the Pocock family for many years, and I had the privilege of serving as chair and board member of the George Pocock Rowing Foundation and the chair of the board of the YMCA of Greater Seattle for many years. The story of Joe Rantz and his teammates and the philosophy of George Pocock have inspired me throughout my life. To me, the Y stands for everything they believed in – the chance "for a better us."
Having seen the entire film at an early pre-screening, I'm thrilled by its authenticity in capturing the true spirit of Joe and George and the total rowing experience. I'm also incredibly impressed by the historical accuracy of the rowing shells and the locations they show. Bravo to George Clooney!
Lastly, I must note that a group of students at Sequim High School, Joe Rantz's alma mater, have teamed up with the local Rotary Club to create the Joe Rantz Youth Fund with the goal of providing safe housing for the estimated 150 homeless youth in Clallam County. May their efforts inspire us all!