The Stan Pocock Rowing Center at Waterfront Park is Bainbridge Island’s Connection to “The Boys in the Boat”

If you haven’t had a chance to see “The Boys in the Boat” – now playing at the Lynwood Theatre, Bainbridge Cinemas and other movie venues in Kitsap County – it’s worth watching for its historic regional significance and its Bainbridge tie-in.

The movie – directed by Hollywood superstar George Clooney – follows the bestselling book of the same name written by Daniel James Brown. The story is a factual account of how nine untested University of Washington college students won an Olympic Gold Medal in the arduous sport of rowing at the 1936 Olympic Games. These were the same games that were held in Nazi Germany at a time when Hitler was hoping to prove to the world that his “Aryan Race” was superior to others.

Photo Courtesy of the Rantz family via People Magazine
Photo Courtesy of the Rantz family via People Magazine

That notion didn’t quite work out. Jesse Owens, one of the United States’ most decorated athletes at the time, and an African-American to boot, won every major title in the storied track and field events, and a bunch of blue collar kids, along with sons of farmers and loggers from Washington state beat out boats from Germany (the Nazi’s) and Great Britain to take home the gold in rowing.

Today, UW has one of the country’s most powerful college rowing programs. Back then – in the Depression-era 1930s – it was struggling to (excuse the pun) keep itself afloat.  The coach – Al Ulbrickson – was so desperate for new talent that he held an open tryout for any student interested in rowing, with the promise of a job if they made the team.

Scores of young men – many aching to put a few dollars in their pockets – showed up and worked out for Ulbrickson and his staff, but only eight were chosen to compete (the ninth – the coxswain – was added later). As it turned out, they were among the best rowers UW has ever produced. But there’s more to the story. Behind the scenes, toiling away in the Boathouse was one of the greatest designers and builders of racing shells in 20th century: George Yeomans Pocock.

Pocock built the boat that the 1936 UW rowers used when they pulled off the upset of the Century and won the Nazi Olympics. In that particular era, nearly every collegiate rowing team used wooden shells and paddles and most of those were made by Pocock. His designs were again front and center when UW later captured Olympic rowing gold in 1948 and 1952.

His son, Stan Pocock – born in 1923 – was also a legendary boat builder and rowing coach. Truly one of the greats of his time, Stan coached eight different crews to the Olympics between 1956 and 1964. Seven of the eight crews made it to the finals, four won gold medals, and two won bronze. No coach in U.S. Olympic history has come close to matching this record in men’s rowing.

For decades, Stan was an integral part of rowing in the Pacific Northwest, serving as the first coach of the regionally revered Lake Washington Rowing Club. Crew was indeed his life’s work.

Stan carried on the family tradition and ran the boat building shop at UW for almost 20 years, overseeing its transition from building wooden boats to using synthetic materials, and is credited with creating the first fiberglass rowing shell in 1961. Under Stan’s careful stewardship, the Pocock company transitioned to these new, technologically superior materials and pioneered a new breed of racing shells that were stronger, lighter, and faster than ever.

He died at the age of 91 in December 2014, leaving an unparalleled legacy of innovation and excellence in both coaching and boat building.

BIR Stan Pocock Rowing Center signSince his passing, the Pocock family partnered with Bainbridge Island Rowing in the naming of their new ultra-modern facility, now called The Stan Pocock Legacy Rowing Center at Waterfront Park to honor Stan’s memory and accomplishments. Those who enter this remarkable boathouse, whether a novice or master rower, or simply a community member, will have the opportunity to learn the history of rowing, refine their skills, and experience moments like the one Stan recorded in his memoir and has been immortalized on a plaque mounted on the new boathouse wall. There is also a shell on display in the rowing center that Stan built. A poem he wrote perhaps best illustrates the love he had for his favorite sport and life’s work:

“I saw, looming behind us, a full moon, 
awesome in its majesty 
Our boat was going like never before. 
I had lost myself and, in the process, 
truly found myself 
I had a fleeting glimpse of the divine.”  – Stan Pocock

BIR Stan Pocock Rowing Center plaqueWhile the movie and the book touch on the influence and importance of George Pocock on the 1936 UW varsity rowing team, the crux of the story is centered on the background and personal evolution of Joe Rantz, a young man trying to find himself as a maturing adult, and as an athlete struggling to become a world-class rower. Rantz grew up in Sequim, but was basically abandoned by his father and his father’s new wife, who apparently didn’t want him around. He was 14-years-old at the time and brought himself up, with the help of some neighbors, eventually ending up at the University of Washington.

His fellow teammates on the UW rowing squad came from similarly impoverished backgrounds, making the contrast with elite rowing programs at universities like California, Stanford, Princeton, Yale and Syracuse that much more entertaining. Back in 1930s, crew was a hugely popular sport, attracting thousands of people to watch regattas. Some 100,000 people reportedly lined the shores of an East coast waterway – some viewing from moving railroad cars – when the UW team qualified for the Olympics.

Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Callum Turner and Wil Coban in 'The Boys in the Boat'. Photo Courtesy of Laurie Sparham via People Magazine
Bruce Herbelin-Earle, Callum Turner and Wil Coban in ‘The Boys in the Boat’. Photo Courtesy of Laurie Sparham via People Magazine

As hard as it is to believe now, the championship rowers had to raise their own money to afford to sail to Germany – getting a big boast from their arch-rival coach from Cal. They then went on to defeat the best rowers in the world in front of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cronies. Rantz got an engineering degree and eventually settled back in Sequim. And of course, he and his teammates, along with George Pocock and the other coaches from 1936, have since been immortalized in Brown’s wonderful 2013 tome, and Clooney’s well-paced movie. “The Boys in the Boat”: it’s worth the read and the watching.

Source Materials: Bainbridge Island Rowing https://bainbridgerowing.org/, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Yeomans_Pocock, People Magazine: https://people.com/true-story-behind-george-clooney-the-boys-in-the-boat-exclusive-8418830

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