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Tuesday, May 11, 2004 - Page updated at 11:47 A.M.
Blaine Newnham / Times associate editor
The four don't look as formidable anymore. Their numbers dwindle, but their recollections don't.
They still represent the greatest athletic achievement in the state's history: nine callow rowers winning a gold medal right under Hitler's mustache.
In 1936, on Lake Grunau, outside Berlin, with the ring of "Deutschland, Deutschland" filling their ears, the University of Washington crew caught up with the world, passing Germany and then Italy in the final 10 strokes to win the Olympic eight-oar gold medal.
Ninety-year-old Jim McMillin runs bony fingers over the cedar bow of the Husky Clipper, which reclines in the Pocock Rowing Center on Lake Union.
"That boat never lost a race," he said.
Neither did those in it.
"I've often wondered how our lives would have changed if we hadn't won that race," McMillin said. "I doubt we would have been as close."
They never thought about not going to the Olympics, even if the Games were in Hitler's backyard and part of his plan for world domination. Even if they were a bunch of kids who had never left the state of Washington.
For them, the swastika on the jersey hanging in the Pocock trophy case wasn't as ominous then as it is today.
"We didn't care what was going on around us. We had a job to do, and that was win a race," said Bob Moch, the coxswain of the UW crew. "We were a pretty directed bunch."
Six of them were engineering students at Washington, none was older than 22, all were from west of the Cascade Mountains, and none had ever rowed before stepping on campus.
Before the race, McMillin, the lanky No. 5 oar from Queen Anne High in Seattle, went up to his German counterpart and, as American rowers do, offered to bet shirts on the outcome.
The race was the Olympic Games final. Adolph Hitler watched from a box near the finish.
"I don't think Hitler was very happy about us winning," said McMillin, who was nearly 6 feet 8. "We weren't the master race."
Just the owners of some new shirts.
"We knew who was in control of the country, all right," added Roger Morris, the bow, who had gone to Lincoln High in Seattle.
Moch, McMillin, Morris and Joe Rantz, who rowed No. 7, are the survivors of the crew, all at or near 90 years old. They gathered last week at the Pocock Rowing Center, chatting as a class of women rowed on indoor machines nearby.
They still love rowing and life, although they are saddened, of course, by the losses of teammates in the past few years: stroke Don Hume, No. 6 George Hunt, No. 4 John White and No. 3 Gordy Adam. The No. 2 oar, Charles Day, died of cancer as a younger man.
Aging and anonymous as they might be today, the UW rowers were the talk of the state in the 1930s.
"I was 13 years old, and it was the biggest thing that had ever happened in Seattle," said Stan Pocock, the son of George Pocock, who built the Husky Clipper. "They might not have been aware of the significance of winning a gold medal in Germany at that time, but people back home were."
Added Moch, "We got more ink in those days than the football team."
The race was a story in itself.
Then the dream began to darken. Hume, the stroke from Olympia, became ill. So did Adam. Hume lost 14 pounds.
"Johnny White went to Al Ulbrickson (the coach) and told him Don had to be in the boat," recalled Moch. "He said, 'Tie him in, and we'll get him across the finish line.' "
They almost had to do that.
"It simply wasn't a fair boat race," Moch said. "Instead of drawing for lane assignments, we were placed in Lane 6, where the wind was blowing and the water was rough."
The Germans were in Lane 1.
Moreover, the Huskies didn't hear the start. Yelled Rantz, "The race has started. Let's get out of here."
They fell back immediately. With fewer than 1,000 meters left, they were last. Moch called for a higher stroke rate, but nothing happened.
"Don's eyes were closed and his mouth was wide open," Moch said of the ailing stroke. "For all intents and purposes, he had passed out."
As the deficit grew, Moch said he was ready to ask Rantz, sitting just behind Moch, to set the stroke.
"That would have been a great risk," Rantz said. "But what did we have to lose?"
Added McMillin, "You know, that is what is so great about rowing. There are no substitutions, no coaching, no timeouts, no nothing."
At the moment Moch was ready to hand the crew to Rantz, Hume responded.
"His eyes opened, his jaw clenched and away we went," Moch said.
The Huskies rowed furiously, passing Great Britain and Switzerland. By Moch's estimate, they had reached 44 strokes a minute even though they had never once trained that fast.
McMillin said the coxswain usually asked for 20 hard strokes to the finish.
But McMillin said, "We couldn't take two."
They collapsed, unaware of how their lives would change. They would get their gold medals in a ceremony in the main stadium, in front of 100,000 people. They didn't know whether Hitler was there or had left, temporarily giving up on his master race idea.
After the Olympics, they rode bicycles in Italy. All nine of them.
"They've been my best friends all my life," Moch said.
Hume was the best man at McMillin's wedding. Starting in 1969, the old teammates met twice a year once by themselves and once with their families.
In 1937, the year after the Olympics, with only Moch missing, the Huskies went undefeated again. They won all three races freshman, junior varsity and varsity at the IRA for a second year in a row.
Their timing was perfect. Because of World War II, there would not be another Olympic Games until 1948. Indeed, in 1940, the Huskies won the IRA again but had nowhere to go.
Today, national teams, not colleges, represent their countries.
The guys from 1936 don't much like the notion of rowers training full time into their 30s to be members of national teams.
"We had lives to live, jobs to do," McMillin said. "We were amateurs."
Besides the six engineers, Day became a doctor, Moch an attorney and Hume an international business consultant.
McMillin lives in an assisted-care facility on Bainbridge Island. High on one wall of his small room is the 12-foot oar he pulled at Washington.
"Never lost a race," he said of the oar.
Not here, or over there.
Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or email@example.com
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