The most important race of their lives

Excerpted from Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics, by Michael J. Socolow

A few hours later, with the Germans having already compiled one of the most impressive regatta records in Olympic history, Riefenstahl’s twenty-one cameramen stood ready to shoot. Radio reporters from England, France, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere stood perched on an elevated platform, chatting rapidly into their microphones, preparing millions of listeners around the globe for the latest sensational Olympic contest. The six eight-oared shells completed their warm-ups and arrived at the starting line to position themselves for the race. The tension drew everyone’s nerves tight. Even the enormous crowd, many waiting patiently under umbrellas, quieted noticeably as the regatta’s finale neared.

Two thousand meters downriver, in the low-profile racing shell built by Seattle’s master boatwright George Pocock, the eight oarsmen and one coxswain representing the United States prepared for the challenge of their lives. They had never lost a race together, and as they finished their warm-up, the rowers shared a sense of purpose and confidence. Yet the oarsmen also felt something wasn’t right in the boat. Their shell felt a bit sluggish and heavy. With the most important race of their lives about to start, an unaccustomed concern arose in each of their minds. It wasn’t exactly doubt, but rather, an anxiety about the boat’s feeling in the water. They also worried about their teammate, the boat’s stroke Don Hume.

Hume had been sick even before the regatta started, and a brutal qualifying heat severely worsened his condition. Hume’s job as stroke was to set the pace for the men behind him; to take the coxswain’s verbal demands and translate them into rhythmic movements followed by the rest of the oarsmen. Hume barely responded to coxswain Bob Moch’s calls in the warm-up. Something was clearly amiss. With the most important race in their life about to begin, this annoyance added additional tension to an incredibly intense moment. “I don’t think we were that confident on the final day,” Gordon Adam, sitting in the three seat, would later remember. “We were running scared from start to finish, believe me.” Sitting in the five-seat, two seats down the shell from Adam, Jim McMillin, the crew’s captain, tried to banish such thoughts. “I had felt that if we rowed the best we knew how, we could get there,” he remembered almost seventy years later. But “everything went wrong from that point on.”