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New 'Boys in the Boat' movie — and a unique campus class — spark pride in Cal's rowing history

Rowing has a storied history at UC Berkeley, from 20th-century men's rivalries chronicled in The Boys in the Boat to recent work highlighting women's rowing.

By Jason Pohl

A black and white image of boats being rowed in a race as they cross under a sign that says "finish"

The Cal men's eight rowing team won the Olympic gold medal in the 1928 games in Amsterdam. It was its first of three Olympic golds for Cal rowing under the direction of Coach Ky Ebright, who put UC Berkeley — and West Coast rowing — on the map. 

Courtesy of the Friends of Cal Crew

In the 1920s, when football fans first packed California Memorial Stadium, thousands of people also lined the Oakland Estuary, eager to spectate the campus's original sport.

They cheered as eight Cal rowers and a coxswain crammed in a narrow shell and raced in college sports' fiercest rivalries. Next to horse racing, rowing was the spectator sport du jour in the early 1900s. Even amid Depression-era headlines, rowing was front-page news.

And when the University of Washington was in town, little else mattered.

The Boys in the Boat, a 2013 bestseller by Daniel James Brown — a UC Berkeley graduate — chronicles the twists and turns of that rivalry and Washington's eventual quest for gold in the 1936 Olympics. George Clooney directs the film, which hits theaters on Christmas Day.

While the book focuses on the Huskies, Cal plays a supporting role as Washington's chief rival. Also noteworthy: Cal is the only university with three gold medals in Olympic rowing and is the institution that proved the sport wasn't just for East Coast, Ivy League elites.

"In many ways, Cal rowing and Washington rowing have long been joined at the hip," Brown, the author, told Berkeley News. While the rivalry was as real then as it is now, "it has always been a rivalry tempered by enormous mutual respect."

A black and white image of several boats being rowed in a race on a body of water in front a crowds of people
The Cal men's rowing team won its second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the 1932 games in Long Beach, California.
Courtesy of the Friends of Cal Crew
That history has been top of mind for Oliver O'Reilly, a Berkeley mechanical engineering professor and vice provost for undergraduate education. O'Reilly's lifelong interest in rowing morphed into a professional pursuit two years ago when he created a popular course on the history of rowing at UC Berkeley.

The befittingly labeled Bears in Boats freshman seminar includes stories about Cal’s hard-fought Olympic victories, its lesser-known competitions and the evolution nationwide of collegiate athletics. Also prominent: Cal's rivalry with Washington.

"The fact that you had people on the West Coast who were able to take high school students who had never rowed before and make them into Olympic champions, it's just extraordinary," O'Reilly said of the rowing era featured in the book and film. "It was such a feat, given the time." 

The Washington and Cal programs are as good as they are because of each other.
Oliver O'Reilly, UC Berkeley professor

Back then, Berkeley was the center of West Coast competitive rowing. In some ways, it still is.

The team in June won its second-consecutive, and 19th all-time, national championship. And the Cal Women's Rowing History Project last year commemorated 50 years since Title IX.

Suffice it to say, rowing had a moment in that era. And it's having another one now.

"The sport ushered in collegiate sports and is a team sport like no other," said Jean Sacconaghi Strauss, an author and filmmaker who interviewed former Berkeley athletes for an oral history project on women's rowing. Strauss rowed for Cal before graduating in 1978 and said the sport launched her most enduring friendships and led to her project "to honor all the women whose shoulders we stand on who made it possible for us to row in the first place."

"There is no half-time, no substitutions mid-race. Rowing is a sport that demands a team effort. Everyone must commit to each other. It's not like a game. It's an opportunity to give yourself wholly and completely to others with the objective of collectively going as fast as you can." 

a black and white image of a narrow boat near a dock with men inside rowing
The 1928 Cal crew and the ensuing rivalry with the University of Washington established rowing wasn't only for East Coast elites. 
Courtesy of the Friends of Cal Crew

Rowing's Berkeley roots, from boathouse to classroom

Cal has had a rowing team since 1875. Men's rowing was the university's first listed sport.

By the early 1900s, Western universities mostly raced each other, venturing east only for the Poughkeepsie Regatta — the championship for the U.S. Intercollegiate Rowing Association — and the Olympic trials. They were high-stakes competitions against the well-heeled likes of Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, the Naval Academy, Pennsylvania and Yale.

A black and white portrait of a smiling man with glasses and a bow tie
Ky Ebright
Courtesy of the Friends of Cal Crew

Multi-day train rides hauling boats and gear were logistically arduous and financially costly, especially for publicly funded universities like Berkeley and Washington. Western coaches made a fraction of their East Coast counterparts’ pay. There was little, if any, money for recruitment.

For a time, these lackluster, struggling rowing programs were on the brink of collapse. But in 1924, Washington and Berkeley came up with a plan that would change everything.

A Washington assistant rowing coach named Ky Ebright was hired to take the helm at Cal and resuscitate the languishing program. Change came fast. Ebright led the Bears to back-to-back Olympic golds in 1928 and 1932. Support for rowing at Cal surged, and donations poured in. 

Berkeley's rising tide lifted all boats.

It also fueled the rivalry captured in the book, The Boys in the Boat.

Berkeley had been favored to represent the U.S. in what would have been its third consecutive Olympic games. Instead, a determined Washington team beat them and their East Coast competitors, culminating in the Huskies' dramatic 1936 trip to the Olympics in Berlin as World War II loomed.

"Cal has an incredible legacy. What the Washington crew did in '36, Cal did three times," O'Reilly said, referring, in addition, to Berkeley's 1948 Olympic run, also under Ebright's coaching. "The Washington and Cal programs are as good as they are because of each other. Having Washington as a rival makes Cal train harder, and vice versa." 

The film is based on the book about the 1936 University of Washington rowing team that competed for Olympic gold.

The Boys in the Boat meets Bears in Boats

Billed as a mechanical engineering class, O'Reilly's 18-student freshman seminar is about much more than boat design or fluid dynamics. It's a Tour de Cal Rowing, from the earliest days on an oil-slicked estuary to contemporary races with fiberglass shells.

Week by week, the Bears in Boats class explores this history — from the early 20th century to more recent contests. The week of the Ebright era includes shaky and grainy black-and-white videos of Cal training and rowing to victory in the 1932 Olympic final. The class discussion spans century-old newspaper clippings to the recent drama about a shortened course being allowed for the 2028 Olympic rowing contest in Southern California. And in each class, O'Reilly holds a weekly open-book group quiz that includes tidbits about Nobel laureates and quintessential Berkeley trivia. 

An image of an Aug. 14, 1932 New York Times sports section front page with a photo of the Cal crew on the water under the headline: University of California crew which won the Olympic championship yesterday
The University of California won the Olympic championship in men's rowing at the 1932 games. It was the team's second-consecutive gold and helped ensure head coach Ky Ebright's place place in Cal rowing history. "In all the history of American rowing there has never been a more thrilling or more magnificently fought boat race than this," the reporter wrote.
Courtesy of Oliver O'Reilly

Jonathan Glantz, a first-year student in the class, received a copy of The Boys in the Boat in high school after he switched from tennis to rowing. He raced through its pages.

"It was one of the first books that I think I really enjoyed reading for pleasure," Glantz said. "It was applicable to not just me as a rower, but to me as a human being who has challenges and wants to work hard and wants to develop in a specific area of life."

His senior year, he was the coxswain — the person who sits in the front of the boat and commands the eight rowers. He caught the eye of Cal recruiters and is now a coxswain at Berkeley. O'Reilly's incorporation of both rowing history and broader history at Berkeley has made him feel more connected to campus, athletically and emotionally.

"Part of learning more about something means you have a greater appreciation for it," Glantz said.

Part of learning more about something means you have a greater appreciation for it.
Jonathan Glantz, UC Berkeley student

Charlene Lee also rowed in high school. She signed up for O'Reilly's class because some rowing friends had enrolled. The first-year student said she's enjoying learning about Berkeley's biggest rivalries and the camaraderie and ceremony within athletics.

"You're rowing with the same people every day," Lee said. "You bond over morning practices and seeing sunrises. The team culture, both off and on the water, is what drove me to love the sport so much."

The class doesn't just attract rowers. 

Sophomore Jacob Siegel signed up with little knowledge of rowing, other than what he remembered from reading The Boys in the Boat seven years ago. The data science major has always loved sports at Cal, but O'Reilly's class is special, he said, because it's a chance to learn about major milestones on campus and across college sports "through the lens of rowing."

"Rowing can show me Cal history," Siegel said. "Rowing can show me the history of Title IX and the history of collegiate athletics." 

A group of students wearing face masks sitting outside looks toward a man at the end of the table gesturing with his hand
OIiver O’Reilly talks with students on the campus’s West Plaza during his freshman seminar, Bears in Boats: A History of Women and Men’s Rowing at the University of California, Berkeley, in spring 2021. 
Adam Lau/UC Berkeley

Berkeley professor: Rowing has 'been a godsend'

That course variety is exactly what O'Reilly set out to include when he created it in 2021.

O'Reilly has worn many hats since arriving at Berkeley in 1992. A mechanical engineering professor who once gained internet fame for a study revealing why shoelaces become untied, he more recently has been focused on his role as vice provost for undergraduate education, Since 2019, he's also been faculty liaison for the Cal men’s rowing team, and in 2022, he was appointed as the campus’s Faculty Athletic Representative to the NCAA and Pac-12.

The class, he said, is "an amalgamation of all those hats."

Growing up in Ireland, O'Reilly rowed in high school. His short stature mostly relegated him to the shoreline, unless another kid was sick or injured and the team needed a substitute. Around that time, he was deeply interested — like most kids — in the Guinness Book of World Records. 

"My first introduction to UC Berkeley was reading that three of Berkeley's crews won the gold medal at the Olympic Games," he said. "I thought it was amazing that a school could have an element named after it, like Berkelium, and have these Olympic gold medal-winning crews." 

A boat with eight men rowing and a person directing them on a body of water with green trees in the background
Cal won the 2023 Intercollegiate Rowing Association's national championship after finishing half a length ahead of the University of Washington Huskies — the latest iteration in a century-old rivarly.   
Zach Franzen/KLC fotos

O'Reilly largely abandoned rowing for four decades, until 2019. Each year on his birthday, O'Reilly commits to a new adventure. One year, he kayaked on the Russian River. Another, he went zip-lining. That year, he decided to take up rowing again. 

He and his wife, Christina, made a habit of rowing with the East Bay Rowing Club. Trips to the Oakland Estuary, where the Cal crews he teaches about have rowed for more than a century, became a chance to watch a sunrise and brace for the day.

That was essential when COVID-19 arrived.

"We both credit rowing with helping us get through the pandemic, just being out on the water, having something to do, staying fit," he said. "It's been a godsend to us."

A man in a blue jacket and sunglasses stands with a woman in a blue jersey and hat alongside an estuary
Oliver O'Reilly and his daughter, Anna, share a passion for rowing — Anna is a coxswain for Cal's crew.
Courtesy of Oliver O'Reilly

Being out there "felt magical," he said.

"It also felt like I needed to get fitter." 

O'Reilly still rows four days per week. His daughter also took up rowing in middle school and was recruited to the University of Washington’s team. 

"I cried for a while," he said about watching her head to Cal's rowing arch-rival.

But then — recently and mercifully, he said — she returned to Berkeley and is now a coxswain for Cal.

One Saturday morning, while O'Reilly was logging some early morning strokes, he saw a boat approach. It was a surreal moment he said he won't soon forget.

"Lo and behold, the Cal crews were coming by," he said. "My daughter and I saluted each other. And it was just lovely."