If the 1936 Olympics are widely remembered for the venue – Nazi Germany – and Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in track and field, islander Jim McMillin recalls the games as, simply, the highlight of his life.
McMillin captained the winning United States shell team in Berlin, rowing hard to earn the gold.
Culled from University of Washington’s varsity squad, McMillin’s nine-man crew bested Italian, English, Hungarian, Swiss and German teams to win for the U.S.
The team was positioned in the least-advantageous outside lane, most exposed to the weather, but came from behind each time to win all three 2,000-meter heats that comprised the race.
“We all rowed with the same idea in mind of winning,” McMillin said. “We didn’t row against the watch. We rowed to win. We weren’t going to let the other guys down.
“We had no idea we were winning at the time,” he added. “We didn’t know because it was very close.”
McMillin and his teammates only knew they’d prevailed, he says, when he looked at an American citizen who was standing near the finish line.
“He was jumping 10 feet in the air, so we figured maybe we did win,” McMillin said.
Hearing the U.S. national anthem played while a gold medal was hung around McMillin’s neck was a thrill.
The moment was not marred for him and his teammates by intimations of the world war that would erupt just three years later.
“We weren’t very politically aware,” McMillin said. “We weren’t interested in their problems. We’d say, ‘well, that’s how they live.’ We just felt it was an honor to be able to represent our country.”
Still, McMillin couldn’t help but note the martial atmosphere of omnipresent brown uniforms and massive swastika-emblazoned flags draped everywhere.
“Hitler didn’t hang the medal on me, but it more or less happened right below his box,” McMillin said.
Late to sport
Born in 1914 and raised on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill, McMillin came to the sport late, as a collegian.
“I’d had to have odd jobs to earn money in high school,” he said. “I didn’t have time for sports.”
But at University of Washington, he found his six-foot frame the right build for rowing, a pursuit that developed from the fierce competition among the English water taxis who ferried passengers from the big ships and that still demands tremendous upper-body strength and lung capacity.
McMillin excelled in the hyper-competitive atmosphere of UW rowing, where the varsity team would be composed of whoever rowed best that day.
“It was tough competition among my own squad,” he said. “You battled for a seat every day. As coach you hope to have enough material and depth to do that sort of thing.”
The University of Washington team worked hard to get to Berlin.
In the team members’ first-ever junket beyond Washington State, the rowers excelled at the most important U.S. race for the collegiate teams, the standing regatta of Class A crews held annually at Pough-keepsie, N.Y.
There, in a four-mile series, the UW varsity squad went undefeated, as did the junior varsity and freshmen – a first-time clean sweep.
“And so, after that race, it was decided to enter us in the Olympic trials in Princeton, New Jersey,” McMillin said, “which we won and earned the right to go to the Olympics.”
Their bid was nearly derailed, however, when the crew were told they needed to come up with $5,000 to make the trip.
“We were told the Pennsylvania Athletic Club had the money, and if we couldn’t raise it in two days, they would go,” he said. “Our athletic director wired ‘the powers that be’ back home in Seattle, and the next day we had $7,500. So off we went.”
McMillin returned from his Olympic triumph to coach the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s rowing team for 17 years, while he worked there as a lab engineer doing classified research.
In 1958, he moved back to the Pacific Northwest, where he worked for Boeing and settled on Bainbridge.
The 1936 rowing crew has reunited down throughout the years, most recently a few months ago.
Today, four of the nine are still alive.When they speak, they reminisce about a triumph very few get to experience first-hand.
“It’s hard to describe it,” McMillin said. “We’d come so far, and to finally pull it out of the bag, certainly that was a peak moment.”