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

December 8, 2023

Black and white image of men rowing in front of a large crowd

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."

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." 

Berkeley News