U. of Washington rowers motivated by school's rich Olympic history

RIO DE JANEIRO -- When Hans Struzyna began his University of Washington rowing career, he and his freshman teammates were required to learn two things right off the bat. One, the words to the school fight song, "Bow Down to Washington." Two, they needed to memorize the names of each member of the 1936 Huskies crew that won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Don Hume, Joe Rantz, George Hunt, Jim McMillin, John White, Gordon Adam, Chuck Day, Roger Morris and Bobby Moch.

"It was drilled into us pretty early that this is a really important part of our legacy," Struzyna said. "We don't forget where we come from. As an individual rower, you're not necessarily anything special, you're part of the legacy, part of the tradition, part of the timeline, and you have to make that part really exceptional."

Struzyna is doing that. He is one of four Washington alumni on the U.S. men's eight crew for the Rio Games, along with Rob Munn, Sam Dommer and coxswain Sam Ojserkis. Former Washington freshman coach Luke McGee is the U.S. men's eight coach.

Those four UW alumni aren't alone. There are four former Huskies rowing in the various U.S. women's boats, plus another four on the Canadian teams. That makes 12 Washington rowers in Rio.

While rowing is often known as an Ivy League sport, the Huskies have won 19 national collegiate men's championships -- the most by any school since 1923 -- and 11 women's titles.

More notably, 86 Huskies will have rowed at least once in the Olympics, winning 42 medals, 23 of them gold. Include those from the boycotted 1980 Games, as well as alternates, and the number of UW rowers on a U.S. Olympic team is 100.

Furthermore, the famous George Pocock, who designed and built so many top rowing shells, was based in Seattle and was a prime ally with the Washington crew. He was the boatman for the U.S. crew teams in 1936, 1948, 1952 and 1956.

Former Washington coaches Al Ulbrickson and Bob Ernst each guided U.S. teams to gold at the Olympics. Ernst coached the U.S. women who won gold in 1984, and Ulbrickson coached UW and U.S. teams to three Olympics, winning gold in the eight man in 1936 and bronze in the coxed four man at the 1952 Games.

While other schools have won Olympic medals -- California won three in the men's eight (1928, 1932 and 1948) -- the 1936 UW team is now the most famous due in large part to Daniel James Brown's "The Boys in the Boat." The book was a nationwide bestseller when it was published in 2013 (and still is in Seattle bookstores), is in the process of becoming a major motion picture and inspired a recent PBS documentary, "The Boys of '36."

"It's interesting because the '36 crew obviously happened a lot of years ago, and the sport has evolved in so many ways since then," Struzyna said. "So, at first glance, you think, 'That's great, but how does it apply to 2008? Or 2016?' But when you dig into it a little bit, that's when you remember those are the roots you came from, and you don't want to forget about it.

"What I've been inspired by is the grit and the rawness those guys had. And the ability they had to come up in this sport that was basically ruled by the East Coast, Ivy League and Cal and to have this faith in themselves and one another that they could face these guys and beat them."

Germany was expected to win gold in the men's eight at the 1936 Olympics, having won five previous rowing races in those Games. Adolph Hitler was on hand for the six-team final race, watching from the terrace behind Ulbrickson's wife. She told documentary maker Lenny O'Donnell in the 1980s: "I sat 30 feet away from Hitler. I'd have shot him if I would have known what he was up to."

The Washington men's eight didn't fire a bullet, but they upset Hitler, just as Jesse Owens did against the German sprinters and long jumpers. Despite rowing in a lane where wind resistance was strongest, the UW/U.S. team performed impressively, roaring from behind to beat the Germans, who settled for bronze, and the silver medal-winning Italians.

The shell the 1936 team rowed to gold in Berlin also hangs in the Huskies' shell house. When Struzyna saw it for the first time, he thought: Are you kidding me? Did they actually row that?

"It looked like it was about to fall apart. And then it was, 'Oh, crap. They actually rowed that.' " he said. "That's where my head went. Then it was, 'This is really cool. This is part of our history. Not some random piece of history.' "

I will always remember my father taking me to my first Husky football game in 1979, when the 1936 Washington rowers were honored on the field. He pointed to them and told me what they accomplished and how special it was.

How will the U.S, rowers fare in Rio? The U.S. women have won gold the past two Olympics, and silver in 2004, with Huskies in all three of those boats. They also had the fastest time during Monday's qualifying heats, so expect more success from them. The men have a good chance to medal as well, and also advanced in Monday's heat with the day's fourth fastest time.

And if they win gold like their forebears in 1936, perhaps the four Huskies in the boat will celebrate by not only listening to "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the medal ceremony, but also by singing the Husky fight song.

Mighty are the men who wear the purple and the gold.