The year was 1933—four years into the Great Depression. The place was Seattle, Washington, at the University of Washington. Thirty young men stood waiting on the shore of Lake Washington, eager to begin their quest. They were all seeking to be on the University of Washington rowing team, even though “almost none of the young men assembled outside the shell house that afternoon had ever rowed a stroke in his life, certainly not in a vessel as delicate and unforgiving as a racing shell, pulling oars twice as long as the young men were tall” (The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown).
These boys were a motley crew—lumberjacks, fishermen, farm boys, city boys—who in the next three and a half years of their lives would face daunting and almost insurmountable challenges in a sport that required precision and unconditional unity. Team rowing is one of the most chronicled sports in the world, and it has established social, moral and spiritual values that these candidates had to live up to. The story of the nine young men on the varsity team is one of unparalleled perseverance. They embodied number six of the seven laws of success: Perseverance.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down,” one rower told his daughter. “What matters is how many times you get up.”
In the book The Boys in the Boat, author Daniel James Brown details the amazing story of this rowing team and their bid to prove Hitler wrong. Many rowers tried out to be on the team, but few were chosen. “The trick would be to find which few of them had the potential for raw power, the nearly superhuman stamina, the indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique. And which of them, coupled improbably with all those other qualities, had the most important one: the ability to disregard his own ambitions, to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.”
Being a member of a rowing team is not an easy endeavor. There are nine members of a rowing team—eight rowers and a coxswain, who calls out the stroke timing and gives general directions to the rowers, whose backs are to the finish line. Brown writes, “Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body, despite the fact that a rower, as [University of Washington rowing coach] Al Ulbrickson liked to put it, ‘scrimmages on his posterior annex.’ And rowing makes these muscular demands not at odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite. …
“The result of all this muscular effort, on both the larger scale and the smaller, is that your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any other human endeavor. Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race—the Olympic standard—takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.”
So why did these nine young men want to be on the rowing team?
The 1936 Olympics were to be held in Berlin. Hitler was planning an Olympic Games that would prove to the world that the Aryan race was superior to all others. The Americans were bent on proving him wrong. These young men were determined to excel at their chosen sport—not just for themselves, or for their country, but for the reputation of the free world.
They suffered through tremendous hardship. Aside from the tremendous physical sacrifice required in the sport itself, this rowing team also had to battle their own inexperience in the beginning. They only had a few months from the start of the school year before the Olympics, and they had to become the best in the nation as quickly as possible. Their team of rowers was originally not chosen to be the University of Washington varsity rowing team—another group of men was picked instead. This was a bit hard for the nine young men to take; they knew that they rowed faster than the team that was chosen. But they didn’t allow this setback to discourage them. They used it to fire themselves to excel, to work better as a team, to build their strength—to become the best team in the nation, and ultimately, in the world.
Their motto became, “Let’s get better.” But each of the young men on that team knew that their motto really meant, “Let’s go to Berlin,”
Rowing is a sport typically engaged in by the elite. The young men on the Washington team came from fairly blue-collar backgrounds; they didn’t have a lot of financial support. They had to pay their own way to competitions, meaning that many of them worked every spare minute outside of college and rowing practice to save up enough money for the team. Once they did rise to the top of the nation in their sport and qualified to represent the United States of America in the Olympics, they discovered that they would have to fund their own way to the Olympic Games as well. Again, they pushed through this setback and managed to get there.
On race day, one of the key members of the team was not feeling well at all. All of the team members had been somewhat affected by seasickness or colds on the trip over to Europe, and now one of their key members was almost non-responsive. Once the gun went off, the sick member of the team rowed his best along with his teammates, but it was not enough. The U.S. boat was in the rear, far behind the leader—Germany. The crowd chanted in German—“Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land!”—in time with every stroke of the German team. It looked like Germany would be an uncontested winner. The Washington team was so far behind that the outlook looked hopeless. But they did not give up. They just kept rowing.
As the finish line came closer and closer, the sick rower suddenly seemed to come alive. He began to row with his usual vigor, and encouraged by his efforts, the other rowers rowed as if their very lives depended on it. Slowly but surely, the American racing shell began to inch past the other competitors, closer and closer to the German team, which was in first place, and the Italian team, which was in second place. They had less than a quarter of a mile to go.
The crowd began to roar as the Washington team began to gain on Germany and Italy. The two favorites were holding the lead, but still Washington gained—until finally, the three racing teams matched each other stroke for stroke, crossing the finish line together. No one could tell who had won. It truly was a photo finish—USA, 6:25.4; Italy, 6:26,0; Germany, 6:26.4. In the end, the three teams were separated by one second. After all of these seemingly insurmountable difficulties, the Washington team had prevailed.
How did this team of seemingly unlikely Olympians win gold? Because of their enduring perseverance. They faced setback after setback, but they were determined—and they succeeded.
We too can use this quality of perseverance in our lives. It is what helps us reach our goals—whether it is something small like doing well on a test, or something major like winning an Olympic event. Perseverance can help us in four key areas of our lives.
1. Perseverance helps us develop the character of God.
Paul wrote in James 1:12,”Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.” The New International Version phrases it this way: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” Persevering through difficulties is what helps us to develop Godly character—and only if we develop that character of God will we receive the crown of life that He has promised to those who overcome.
2. Perseverance helps us improve our relationships with others.
Our friendships, marriages, work or school relationships all take effort in order to grow. We have to work at our relationships in order for them to succeed. It is easy to let the first squabble ruin a relationship or a friendship, but if you persevere through the difficulties, the relationship will be better for it.
In the Spokesman Club manual, Joel Hilliker wrote: “Whether you are single or married, old or young, gregarious or quiet, minister or lay member, you should be able to connect with everyone in the congregation. So seek others out and get to know them. All of them are part of God’s family.” We have to persevere through our personal fears, our embarrassment, our shyness, our insecurities, and become the kind of godly, kind, outgoing people that God wants us to be.
3. Perseverance helps us improve our prayer life.
If you ask God for something and you don’t receive an answer, what do you do? Do you give up? Do you say, “Oh, that request must just not matter that much to God, so I won’t bother Him with it.” Think of the parable of the persistent widow. It could also be called the parable of the perseverant widow. She didn’t give up; she just kept asking in faith. If you pray for something and don’t receive an answer right away, don’t give up! Keep communicating with God. If our prayers are fervent, He won’t ignore us. And once He does answer, recognize and accept the answer that He is giving you—even if the answer does not come in the way or the timing that you expected.
4. Perseverance helps us reach our goals.
We will have difficulties and trials in our lives, but if we persevere through them, we will be able to reach the goals that we have set for ourselves—and the ultimate goal that we should all have (Matthew 6:33).
George Pocock, who built the racing shells that the Washington team used, talked about team rowing in regard to perseverance: “It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of the men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them.” The trials we experience on the way to reaching our goals can seem almost insurmountable, but persevering through them is the only way we will ever be able to accomplish anything of lasting value.
Whenever you face obstacles, difficulties, trials and tests in your life, remember the example of the University of Washington rowing team that defeated Hitler’s propaganda attempts by winning gold against all odds. Remember their perseverance, and let their example fire you to achieve your goals—no matter what obstacles stand in your way.