Readers familiar with Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” know the names Joe Rantz, Don Hume, Roger Morris, Shorty Hunt, and Bobby Moch; and know the coaches Al Ulbrickson and Tom Bolles. These rowers and coaches led the University of Washington men’s eight rowers in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, giving the lie to Hitler’s Aryan supremacy ideology as a group of misfit sons of Pacific Northwest loggers, farmers, and laborers, beat the world’s best to take to the Olympic gold medal.
Rowing alongside these stalwarts in training sessions on Lake Washington were two young men from Vashon Island. Don Canfield was a freshman in 1934 and began rowing that fall under freshman coach Tom Bolles as number 7 behind stroke Don Hume in the first year boat. Harold Agren was a freshman in 1935 and rowed stroke for the lightweight Husky eight.
As the crews were selected for the various Olympic boats in preparation for the American Olympic Trials held on the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie in June 1936, Don Canfield was selected to row in the men’s four rather than the elite men’s eight. Undaunted, Don threw himself into the training regimes and was ready for the long train ride from Seattle to Poughkeepsie. They left on June 10 for the four-day trip and arrived in Poughkeepsie on June 14 ready to win the right to represent the U.S. at the Berlin Games.
The men’s eight handily won their place to compete at the games, but the men’s four, while rowing a dogged race, were edged out in the last hundred yards by the Riverside Club of New York, finishing less than a boat length behind and losing the opportunity to go to Berlin.
Don would go on to row in the men’s eight at the University of Washington in the following years lettering in rowing in 1939, marrying his sweetheart Cynthia Ann Peabody from Gig Harbor, and graduating in 1939.
Harold Agren rowed lightweight eights for the Huskies in 1935 and 1936, sitting in the stroke seat, which is one of the most important seats in the shell, since the stroke oarsman sets the swing and cadence of the boat under the call of the coxswain. He majored in physical education, planning to teach after graduation, and was in the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) receiving his commission as a Lieutenant in 1939. Following his graduation he was called to active duty in May 1941 and sailed to the Philippines, where he was stationed at Nichols Field outside of Manila. When the Japanese attacked in December 1941, he fought with the Americans at Corregidor until the island, at the mouth of Manila Harbor, fell in May 1942. With the fall of Corregidor, Harold was imprisoned at the Japanese prisoner of war camp at Cabanatuan, where he died of malaria and dysentery. His family learned of his death in August 1945 with the end of the War, and of his burial at Luzon.
Today, the Vashon Island Rowing Club (VIRC) keeps the rowing spirit of Don Canfield and Harold Agren alive.
Founded as the Vashon Women’s Rowing Club in 1990 by a small, intrepid group of women led by Celia Congdon, the club eventually allowed spouses to join and was re-christened the Vashon Island Rowing Club (VIRC) in 1995. Almost immediately the club then added a junior program in 1996. Most early club rowers had almost no previous experience so medals at regattas were rare and finishing the race with all people and oars still in the boat was a cause for celebration.
Twenty-seven years after the first shell was launched into the cold waters of Quartermaster Harbor the club has reached a different level of competitive prowess. The junior program routinely sends one of more boats to the National Championships and master boats usually return from regattas with arm-loads of medals. In the last decade, over a dozen junior Vashon crewmembers have gone on to row at NCAA Division I university programs, many landing in top varsity boats. Mia Croonquist, a Vashon native, is arguably the most successful junior rower internationally of all time, having won a gold and two silvers at Junior Worlds, a silver and bronze at Junior Nationals and two golds at the 2015 U-23 World championships in the U.S. women’s eight and four. Our tiny island of 11,000 residents has created a national rowing reputation.
Coaching has, of course, been a big part of this success story most recently with Richard Parr, a coach with Olympic experience himself taking the reins and the program to new levels of achievement. With all of the emphasis here on the competitive aspects of rowing it should be mentioned that rowing on Vashon also provides recreational access to great exercise in a wonderful marine environment populated with seals, herons, eagles and an occasional whale — and contrary to popular belief there is no requirement to get up in the dark to participate.
Bruce Haulman is an island historian, Pat Call is a former VIRC junior parent and current master rower, Terry Donnelly is an island photographer.