The Olympics 1936: When UW Rowers Beat the NazisAugust 2, 2012 @ 6:00 pm (Updated: 6:16 pm - 8/2/12 )
By Rachel Belle
The year was 1936 and the University of Washington rowing team finally made it past the Olympic trials, for the first time ever. What happened next is an incredible story that most people have never heard before. So I present to you now: The year the UW Rowing Team Beat the Nazis, told by the UW's director of rowing and women's head coach, Bob Ernst.
Like I said, the year was 1936, and the team of underdogs was faced with its first barrier.
"They were all set to go to the Olympic games and then they found out they had to pay $5,000 to get to go. It's one of the things I think made it a really community kind-of-feeling and project for the Washington crew. They actually went down and raised the money in downtown Seattle. The newspaper boys were taking donations to help get the money."
The team was composed of a bunch of blue collar, working class, kids who would be going up against elitists hand-picked from around western Europe. They were competing against Nazis and Hitler was in the grandstands, the day of the big row.
"Of course, the Berlin Olympics, they were to be a showcase for the Nazi regime. Yes, they were rowing against Nazis, in a sense, because the German team was there and the Huskies raced them. The Italian team was there and I guess they were supposed to be Nazis too, at the time. This was a part of the big build up before World War II."
The team had come over on a large ship, and several people had gotten sick. This did not bode well for the team's performance.
"They were pretty far behind, half way down the course. Don Hume, the guy that was the stroke, the guy who kind of sets the rhythm, was really, really sick and not very effective. But they managed to pull it together in the second half of the race, just eeked out a win. It's a classic picture that shows the margin that they won by. It was like three feet! It was really special."
The underdogs became the champions and they were acknowledged as such.
"I read an account that when they played the national anthem, when they raised the American flag, they gave the guys the medals, the German fans actually stood at attention and gave the Nazi salute. I think it was their way of saying, 'Ok, good race. Our hats off to you.'"
The UW took home the gold, but since the Olympics were canceled in 1940 and 1944, because of World War II, the team never competed again.
"A lot of these guys, after they went to Berlin, were in the Olympics, won the gold medal, saw the big show that the Nazis were putting on. Two or three or four years later these guys were in the war fighting against the same people who they were racing against, in some cases. So it was a really, really interesting situation."
But the men remained close.
"Those guys had a reunion, I think, every year. I remember specifically in 1976, what is that a 40 year reunion? They got together and all of them were there except for the one guy who had passed away, and their coach was there, and they all went for a row together 40 years later. That was really really cool and they did that at Conibear Shellhouse House on the campus. That boat, the boat that they won in, is still hanging in our dining room at the Shellhouse."
This amazing Olympics story, that you have probably never heard before, put the Northwest on the map for athletics and rowing.
"In 2000, the PI had this big article on what the most significant sports events were for the last century. They ranked the Huskies winning the Olympic gold in Berlin as the number one of the whole century. That was kind of a coming-out party for the whole region, not just the Huskies."
Seventy-six years later, the UW proudly continues the tradition.
"We have the biggest collegiate rowing program in the world and it's one of the most successful. Right now we have 12 of our athletes in the Olympic games and six of them have won medals now. So we're doing pretty well on the medal count."
So far, UW rowers have won three silvers, two bronze and a gold.
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