A Boy in a Boat

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, August 19, 2020

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For the past few days, I have been totally immersed in the book “The Boys in the Boat”.  As the dust jacket states, it is about “nine Americans and their epic quest for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics”. 

My wife suggested I read the book several years ago.  It is about nine unlikely members of the University of Washington crew team who rowed their way into history during the turbulent times prior to World War II.   It was only when my oldest first cousin, Bill Byrd, was planning a visit this past weekend that I decided to listen to the audio version of the book.

Bill was a member of the Washington crew team from 1970-1972.  I visited the shell house with Bill when I attended his wedding just before my senior year in high school.  It was impressive but I did not have the context of the storied history of Washington crew.  I also could not have been aware of the impressive resume that Bill would continue to build over the next 45+ years.

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Four years older than me, Bill spent most of his years growing up in Southern California.  After graduating from high school, his family moved to Vancouver, Washington where Bill lives to this day. 

Despite the 3,000 miles separating that part of my family, we have always remained close.  They visited every other year at Compass Lake.  We spent many years visiting their homes on the west coast. 

Bill is the most physically fit person I have ever known.  He learned to love rowing in college and never gave it up.  At the age of 70, he still competes in competitions around the country.  He was a gold medal winner in the Pan-American Games and as he once said modestly, “has a sack full of medals” from his long list of competitions.

In a strange twist of fate, Bill’s rowing partner these days is his ex-wife Jann.   They remain great friends and have three sons, and two grandchildren with another on the way.  She joined him during their visit to Auburn, on their way to Clearwater, Florida to visit one of their children.

As we sat at Chappy’s Deli, having breakfast before their departure, they told us the story of Bill’s massive heart attack three years ago while rowing on the Willamette River.  Jann happened to see Bill collapse as he was coming into the dock.  Luckily, a rowing coach was directing his crew from his own boat at the same time and realized Bill was in trouble.

Together, Jann and Plamen Petrov, a Bulgarian coach and instructor, managed to get Bill to the dock.  Petrov performed CPR for over 25 minutes as they waited for the EMT’s to arrive.  Bill had been in the cold water for many minutes, which may have contributed to his survival.

In the hospital, the doctors were not optimistic. Bill was placed in a drug induced coma, his bed packed with ice to keep his temperature low.  Privately, the doctors prepared the family for the likelihood of permanent brain damage when Bill woke up.

As the medical team began to finally warm Bill’s body up and bring him out of the coma, the family was told it could be 72 hours before he woke up.  45 minutes later, he was awake.  As Bill woke up, they asked if he knew where he was.  Looking around, he replied “a hospital?” 

Following two bypasses, Bill began rehab, fudging on the regime by also working out on a rowing machine.  Knowing his body, he helped his recovery by continuing the workouts he had followed his entire adult life.

In a just eight months, Bill rowed his first race after the heart attack.  Legally dead several times over, he resumed doing what he loved.  I do not think anyone doubts that his fitness level after decades of rowing helped Bill survive an almost certain death.

The “Boys in the Boat” is an amazing read which I would recommend to anyone who likes a true inspirational story of overcoming tremendous odds.  As I sat spellbound, listening to Bill and Jann recount their own story, I realized that he had overcome even greater odds, though on a personal level.

Bill sat across from me in the booth at Chappy’s eating everything in sight, like all active rowers do.  He had only been given a 1-2% chance of survival.  Some thought the 1936 crew team from Washington that won a medal in Berlin was a miracle.  Bill beat even greater odds, in no small part because he was and has always been a boy in the boat.