Berlin, May 1936—three years before the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II. Adolf Hitler has spent millions sprucing up the city to demonstrate German dominance to the world. But on a placid lake in the suburb of Grünau, a crew of no-name rowers from the University of Washington challenges the favored German and Italian teams for one of the most thrilling finishes in Olympic history. In his best-selling 2013 book The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown details the events that led to that race, focusing especially on Northwest native Joe Rantz.
For this story, which has captivated more than two million readers to date, we have Joe Rantz’s daughter Judy Willman to thank. It was Willman who introduced Brown to her dying father, and whose tireless research helped bring the tale to life. This month, the PBS series American Experience brings the story to the small screen, with never-before-seen news footage and reenactments shot at the UW boathouse where it all began.
Brown explains in the book that you made it your mission to share your dad’s story with the world. What drove that?
When we started, I couldn’t stand the thought of him just fading away. And the guys—it was so important to him that they not fade away.
Did you always think of him as this big hero?
When you’re young that stuff doesn’t seem important. I would admit with a certain amount of embarrassment that when I actually started to think about the fact that Dad had won a gold medal, it really irritated me that it had taken eight other people to win it with him.
Now millions of people know your family story.
It’s like living in some sort of parallel universe. It’s very odd going into a room, and it’s like “You’re Judy?” It has basically taken over our lives.
Did you guess the book would be so huge?
No. Especially with the preliminary publicity—we got no New York Times review, no national television interviews, no radio. Dan told me: “Without these things, it’s not real likely the book is going to take off.” But it just kept exploding.
Why do you think it has resonated so strongly?
It really is about who we are as humans. The longing for home and the love and the grief and the striving and the sacrificial companionship. It’s hard not to respond to those things.
The Weinstein Company bought the screen rights back in 2011. Is this movie going to happen?
Neither Dan nor I have any say. It is a relief that American Experience took this on, because no matter what may happen with the movie, there will be an accurate visual record.
If you could cast the actor to play your dad, who would you pick?
Somebody really good looking, with a blond crew cut. And somebody who knows how to row.