SEATTLE -- Judy Willman knew her father was an Olympic gold medalist, but it wasn't until her dad was nearing the end of his life that he began to open up about it.

I knew there was a story and I knew it was important, she said. But it was like, what do you do with it?

Judy's father, Joe Rantz, was one of nine rag-tag rowers at the University of Washington in 1936. It was a team of farmers, loggers and ship builders that somehow defeated Hitler's elite Nazi team at the Berlin Olympics in the depths of the Great Depression. Their remarkable achievement was overshadowed by the incredible story of Jesse Owens and his four gold medals.

The winning shell hangs from the ceiling of the Conibear Boathouse at UW. It's one of the few pieces of history remaining. In fact, Rantz's gold medal was nearly lost. It sat in the attic of his Lake Forest Park home for four decades and apparently fell prey to a wily rodent.

We're assuming it was a squirrel that took it up and hid it in his nest. It was chewed on and covered in insulation, said Judy.

It's oddly fitting, since Joe Rantz and the rest of his teammates took no individual glory in their great Olympic achievement.

It was always all about the team.

After finding the medal, Judy started asking questions about her father's story. Amazed, Judy told a neighbor in her Redmond Homeowners Association.

I was just transfixed, said Daniel James Brown, who spent four years researching and writing The Boys In The Boat. Released last year, it has become a literary phenomenon and it's bringing people from across the country to the UW campus to see history for themselves.

Over the span of less than 30 minutes on Monday, at least half a dozen people wandered into the boathouse looking for any sign of the Olympic team. They came from as far away as New Jersey and Florida.

Meeting Judy that day, and meeting Joe the next day, it was just pure serendipity, said Brown. Writers dream of something like this. I just wanted to do it justice.

Joe Rantz died just a few months after telling his story to Brown. Everyone from that team has now passed on. Judy can't help but think about how close the story came to being lost if they hadn't stumbled across that long lost gold medal years ago.

It is gratifying because now they will be remembered, she said.

A movie deal is in the works, according to Brown. On Monday at 7 p.m. he will read from The Boys in the Boat at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Another reading is scheduled for September 12 at Mercer Island Books.

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