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1936 Olympics: What Might Have Been

1936 Olympics: What Might Have Been

Would the best-seller Boys in the Boat ever have been written had rising Penn senior John Conger not come down with the mumps? Would the compelling story of a scrappy University of Washington crew making it to the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” never have come to pass? Instead, might the University of Pennsylvania have triumphed in Berlin? After all, the Penn eight did finish a close second to UW at the Olympic trials.

For the rest of his life, John (Jack) Conger believed that but for his “childhood disease,” Penn would have won, his son, Dick, told me.“Our father was on the original Penn crew,” slated to compete in the 1936 Olympic trials “until he was quarantined at home with the mumps,” said Dick. “He was heart broken, of course! He told the story many times.” According to his dad, Penn and the University of Washington had been close competitors prior to the Olympic trials. Dick’s brother, Nick, has their father’s medals to prove it.
But after their dad got sick, the change of lineup “couldn’t equal the performance of when dad was in the boat,” Dick said. There was “enough of a loss of continuity that in the final eliminations UW won over the Penn boat.  
    I went to the archives of the Philadelphia Inquirer to check out Dick’s story. Its reporting from the spring of 1936, had John Conger rowing in the varsity eight’s bow position, right where he would have been on July 5th, had he not fallen ill. The deciding race on Princeton’s Lake Carnegie was literally breathless, with Penn rowing at 39 strokes a minute for most of the distance. UW, however, pulled harder, keeping pace at just 35 strokes a minute, then accelerating to a screaming 40 strokes in the final stretch.  
    The Inquirer reported: “It was over the third quarter that the Huskies [UW] commenced to assert themselves. Steadily raising their beat and putting every ounce of their power behind each stroke, Coach Al Ulbrickson’s mighty pupils fairly jumped their shell through the placid waters with oars manipulated so adroitly that they did not raise so much as a spray.” “Dad was convinced,” Dick said yet again, “that if his crew had remained intact, Penn would have won the gold in Berlin.” If could have been would have been….

John Conger (far right) with Penn crew before he got the mumps in 1936

(Post published Jan. 7, 2017)