In the early hours of a September morning, on the placid water of Lake Stevens, a Mill Creek mother and daughter are keeping alive one of the great family legacies in American rowing.
Jen Huffman, who is 42, and 15-year-old Dana Huffman are the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of the late Joe Rantz, a member of the University of Washington crew that represented the United States at the 1936 Olympics. The American college kids, unknown and unheralded, came from behind in the final race to win a surprising gold medal over favored crews from Italy and Germany, with the latter cheered on by compatriots and Nazi government officials, including chancellor Adolf Hitler.
It is one of the top moments in this nation’s Olympic history, if not all of U.S. sports history, and one celebrated in a recently published book, “The Boys in the Boat,” which remains on the New York Times Bestseller list after several weeks.
For Jen and Dana Huffman, the book is a connection to a man they remember as a devoted grandfather and great-grandfather, and someone who “would’ve been tickled” to know his relations followed him into rowing, Jen Huffman said.
The Huffmans are members of the North Cascades Crew, which trains on Lake Stevens. Though relatively new to the sport, they have both found the same love for rowing that Rantz himself discovered nearly eight decades ago.
“There are definitely times when I think about what he accomplished,” Jen Huffman said. “And when I do it’s amazing to me.”
Rantz, who was born in Spokane, lost his mother when he was 3. His father remarried and settled in Sequim, where Rantz spent much of his childhood, but as a teenager his father and stepmother moved away, leaving him behind.
Rantz eventually went to live with an older brother in Seattle and later graduated from Roosevelt High School. After taking a year off to work and save money, he enrolled at Washington and took up rowing
Under legendary UW coach Al Ulbrickson. Rantz rowed his first season on the freshman crew, moved to the junior varsity boat as a sophomore, and finally made the varsity boat as a junior.
That was in 1936, the same year as the Summer Olympics in Berlin. Back then entire crews of U.S. eights would race for the opportunity to be the Olympic representative, and the Washington rowers placed first to qualify for a trip to Germany.
In the Olympic final the Americans fell behind early, but then staged a dramatic closing surge to slip past the Germans and Italians for the gold medal. Less than a second separated the three boats, with Italy edging Germany for second place.
As a younger woman, Jen Huffman knew her grandfather had been a successful rower, “but it was something he never really went on about,” she said. “I don’t remember him really talking about crew at all when I was growing up.”
A few years before her grandfather’s death in 2007, Jen Huffman discovered a trunk filled with his rowing mementos, including photos, scrapbooks and old jerseys. The enormity of his accomplishments soon became clear.
Though Rantz was never able to read “The Boys in the Boat,” he was interviewed by author Daniel James Brown shortly before he died. The story of Rantz’s life — from the hardships of his youth to the pinnacle moment in Berlin — is very much a focus of the book.
Yet despite his remarkable memories, Rantz never clung obsessively to his rowing past, Jen Huffman said. He lived with his wife, Joyce, in Lake Forest Park for many years, raised a family, worked as an engineer at Boeing, was an avid square dancer, and loved vocal and instrumental music. At family get-togethers, he would play the guitar and lead the sing-alongs.
“He was relatively quiet,” his granddaughter said. “But he was such a caring person.”
As a girl and younger woman, Jen Huffman was active in gymnastics, both as a participant and later as a coach. But after her son took up rowing, she decided to take a learn-to-row class with some of the other mothers. And almost immediately she was hooked.
Part of the appeal, she said, “is being outside. Lake Stevens is such a great place to row. You can see the sun rising over the mountains and fish jumping out of the water. It’s just very tranquil. It’s also fantastic exercise, and for me that’s a big part of it. I’ve always been a very active person and it’s something that keeps me active.
“But there’s also the competitive aspect of it that really drew me into it. And once I got into it and realized I could be very competitive at it, then it was like, ‘OK, how far can I go?’”
Jen Huffman rows a single and double, and is good enough in both to have won multiple regional championships in different age groups over the past three years (the region, one of four in the country, covers much of the Western U.S., with many Canadians also competing). Next month she is headed to the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta in Cambridge, Mass.
Rowing “is a lot of fun to do,” agreed Dana Huffman, a sophomore at Glacier Peak High School who also rows a single and double. “It’s a really fun sport and a way to be active. I have a lot of friends, too. Being on the team is a way to meet people.”
Had her grandfather lived another few years, “I think he would’ve been very excited to know that I was (rowing) and that Dana was doing it, too,” Jen Huffman said. “It was a huge part of his life for four years, and I just wish I would’ve asked him more about it when he was alive. Because he did some incredible things.”