Jim Ojala links PLU and UW’s Olympic gold medal-winning ‘Boys in the Boat’

Jim Ojala was PLU crew captain in the 1960s and source for the popular Daniel James Brown book “The Boys in the Boat.”
Jim Ojala was PLU crew captain in the 1960s and source for the popular Daniel James Brown book “The Boys in the Boat.” Courtesy photo

When the boys in the boat finally seemed to get the feel for rowing, a guest in the coach’s boat smiled and laughed with approval.

The Pacific Lutheran University basketball team was learning to row on American Lake as part of a team-bonding activity.

The Lutes had read Daniel James Brown’s 2013 book, “The Boys in the Boat,” over the summer, and now they were learning first-hand the complexity of the simple-looking sport.

It all sounded like too much fun for Jim Ojala to miss, so the Bellingham resident arrived at the lake Oct. 7 at 5 a.m.

It was on this lake five decades ago that Ojala learned to row and became captain of the PLU crew. Now he was back serving as a living link between the Lutes and Brown’s popular book.

“The Boys in the Boat” tells the story of the University of Washington’s crew winning a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. Brown credits Ojala as a source for the book.

Ojala, 68, is a rowing historian who still rows regularly.

But his rowing life almost never found its swing. In 1966, PLU didn’t have a rowing coach, and the school canceled the season.

However, Ojala said, the school forgot to tell the team. Ojala and other sophomores recruited students and checked out books from the school library on rowing technique.

“Mostly, they made things up as they went along,” Ojala wrote in an essay called “The Clipper.”

To promote rowing in the Northwest, UW lent boats to various programs, including PLU and the University of Puget Sound.

Among them was the Husky Clipper, the boat the ’36 crew used to win Olympic gold in Germany. The boat was adorned with red, white and blue chevrons signifying the accomplishment.

Improvising drills, the crew of mostly lightweights trained through the winter looking to perfect its technique. In March 1967, Ojala writes, everything finally clicked.

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Lutes entered a race on American Lake against UPS and Seattle University. The men averaged less than half a year of experience each, so they had no idea if they would be competitive.

After 10 strokes in the 2,000-meter race the Lutes led by half a length. Moments later there was open water between them and the others.

Ojala writes that the team “whooped with delight” as it crossed the finish line six lengths ahead of the field and 20 seconds ahead of the course record.

Ojala, who graduated PLU in 1969, says a new era of Lutes rowing was born. They’d post victories over UW and Harvard in the coming years.

The American Lake race was the final race for the Husky Clipper. UW requested the Clipper’s return so it could be put on display. It currently hangs from the ceiling of the school’s shell house.

UW offered up another boat, the Loyal Shoudy, for the Lutes as long as PLU could get it back to Tacoma. In the middle of December, the Lutes rowed the boat 43 miles to Tacoma.

Ojala says those men are still friends today.

“This is a sport that encourages teamwork and closeness,” Ojala said. “When you’re part of a crew that successfully comes together, it’s an experience you don’t forget.”