Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton

My friend and I were fascinated by Bethany Hamilton’s story when we were in high school. She even had a poster of Bethany on her wall. So naturally, when we heard about the movie coming out and realized she had written a book we had to see and read them immediately.

For those who don’t know it, Bethany Hamilton was a thirteen year old surfer from Hawaii who was attacked by a shark and lost her arm. Most people would have given up surfing at this point because having only one arm to paddle with is a major disadvantage in competition. But with a supportive family, community, and even world and her strong faith, she came back strong and is now a top ranking pro-surfer. Since the movie, the book has been updated to include her time on the movie set which is a fun addition if you watched the movie.

The book was written when she was only fourteen, a year after the attack. Her youth shows as the book does not really go in depth into the emotions and struggles she experienced. Much of the hard stuff–like how she adjusted to things like preparing food with one hand and competing with one arm–was glossed over. (The movie shows this poignantly.) Despite this obvious lack, the story is still inspirational. Her strength and resiliency (whether you care about faith and religion or not) is impressive and you cannot help but be touched by her story.

One thing I was slightly disappointed to note was that the cover (a shot taken from the movie) does not show her surfing with one arm. I am not surprised with this decision, but at the same time, it is as though they feel the need to hide it for fear that showing someone with only one arm will scare off consumers. What makes Bethany inspirational is that she doesn’t hide her injury (she doesn’t wear a prosthetic and she has never let one arm hold her back) and it seems like the publishers should have highlighted rather than hidden this on the cover.

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Recruited by Suzanne Weyn

Recruited follows Kadeem, the star quarterback of his high school football team. As a senior, Kadeem is starting to think about college and scouts have started taking an interest in him. Teller University, one of the best college teams, is particularly interested in him and begin actively trying to get him interested. It’s a dream come true for Kadeem–a great team that could all but ensure a shot at pro-football, hot cheerleaders interested in him, no worries about grades, money and meals…But when Kadeem learns that Teller’s recruitment policies are illegal (against the rules of the NAACP) and is asked to help catch Teller at it, he doesn’t know what he should do. Should Kadeem give up all the great things he can gain from Teller (and potentially scare away all recruiters in the process) to do the right thing?

A couple of years ago, reading this book I would have said it was a pretty good, standard YA book. The story is clear and easy to read, we see Kadeem first get drawn into the glamor of being courted by a football team and then step back and try to figure out what type of person he is. We also see Ty, his friend and teammate, handle the pressure differently as he struggles to earn a scholarship that would be his only way to go to college. But having read a lot of YA books recently, this book felt like it was lacking.

Kadeem (who I don’t think we ever get a real physical description of) lacks the multi-dimensional characters and world that more recent Young Adult books I have read contain. Sure it was a tough choice for Kadeem, but we barely had any sense of true struggle from him. The entire situation felt very black and white with no complexity. I think one of the things missing form the entire debate of what he should do were the effects of his actions. How would his choice affect his teammates? How might it affect his chances of being recruited elsewhere? Further removing any complexity from the situation was having Alyssa, the cheerleader at Teller that Kadeem liked, exposed as a liar (flirting with him only to get him interested in Teller but not truly interested in him at all) so early and easily. Wouldn’t the story have been more interesting if Kadeem didn’t know for sure? Then his choice about Teller would still be more difficult. There is even the potential for Alyssa to have pulled a “Ten Things”–started out with him for the wrong reasons but ultimately falling for him. Realistically, she is not likely to really fall for a high school student, but a high school student wouldn’t know that. Once the decision was made, everything else basically fell into place with Kadeem’s future as well.

I think that today’s best books are the ones that really dig into the characters and the ambiguities in the issues presented and that, ultimately, was what I felt was lacking from the book. It wasn’t bad, but it doesn’t leave me wanting to go find another book by Weyn.

No Limits: The Will to Succeed by Michael Phelps

Each chapter focusing on one of the eight races Michael Phelps competed in to win the record eight golds in the 2008 Olympics. Using these races as a frame, Phelps talks about his fight to elevate the sport of swimming in the US while giving insight into some of his struggles. We learn about his struggles with ADHD, how he got into swimming (thanks to his talented older sisters), how his coach took on the role of father figure, his drunk driving mistakes, and his “competition” with other top swimmers (I put the word competition in quotation marks because it was more of a friendly rivalry–like Ash on Pokemon! Yes, I did just reference that but if you have ever seen that kid show, you know what I mean–and because he competed more with himself than other swimmers).

The book gave a little more and a little less than I wanted from it. Part of why I love sports memoirs is for their insights into the sports themselves, the little tricks it takes to be the best, the injuries and sacrifices, the pursuit of greatness. We got some of that in the book, with the early morning practices and some talk of form, but I didn’t feel as close to the sport as I had hoped. I also didn’t feel like I got to know who Phelps was as a person. It was more like he was a spokesperson for perkiness and “life is good.”

It might have been more interesting to hear about his rise to greatness than the actual Olympics when he was already basically unbeatable.

It was fun to read, but left something to be desired.

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis

Many people have seen the movie by now and, as someone who loves to compare books to their adaptations, I felt that I should read the book. The two start out similarly enough, counting the less than five seconds it could take from the snap of the ball in a play to ending someone’s career. But from their they diverge in a lot of ways.

While the movie focuses solely on the life of Michael Ohr and how he came to play left tackle in the NFL, the book has a much larger undertaking. Lewis delves into the history of the sport and seeks to explain its evolution–from running game to passing game, from the left tackle being considered the same as any offensive lineman to being considered a unique and high-paid player. A part of me was interested in this information. The politics of sports is always fascinating to me since there’s so much going on that just being a fan of the sport you might miss. At the same time, that information isn’t as compelling as Michael’s story.

This is the problem with a story being told from an outsider’s perspective (as opposed to from the point of view of someone who actually lived through the experience), it feels somewhat removed and impersonal and the outside facts tend to intrude.

The one thing that the book had that the movie lacked was more details about the before (Michael’s childhood) and the after (what became of the Tuohy family and Michael). There’s more explanation of how Michael ended up where he did, though I think Lewis makes it all too simple to explain someone’s entire nature.

It’s not the best of the sports books I’ve read in the last few months, but it is interesting to see how it differs from the movie and for football fans, there’s a lot of information about the sport that’s cool to learn.

Interested in reading the book? Check it out here: The Blind Side

Outcasts United by Warren St. John

Outcasts United tells the story of Clarkston, Georgia, a small southern town just outside of Atlanta. Once a quiet, mostly white town with little going on, Clarkston was quickly changed when a refugee resettlement program brought in an influx of foreigners.

Luma Al-Mufleh, a woman born into a well off family in Jordan, found that living the strict, structured life of the Muslim woman and decided to remain in the United States after college. Her family, furious with her decision, cut her off completely. Left to fend for herself, Luma struggled to find her place for herself and eventually stumbled into Clarkston where she saw a group of refugee boys playing soccer. So she started a soccer program for the boys, including mandatory tutoring sessions for anyone who wanted to play. Luma, a strict coach, demanded the best of her players and expected them to put in the time, effort, and energy required to succeed in the sport. But she was much more than a coach to the boys. She became friends with their families, began helping them in life off the field as much as on.

The team was a positive element in the lives of boys who’d experienced so much tragedy, but it wasn’t easy. Clarkston was not prepared for the scores of people who were moved into the town without many skills, without any idea of American culture, and often, without the ability to speak English. Many people were resentful of the changes being forced on them without any say on the matter. The boys were banned from using the town’s all-purpose field, the explanation being that it was a baseball exclusive field. Of course, the fact that there were no baseball leagues in the town was irrelevant.

The story is an interesting and inspiring one. One of my only problems with the book is that it is written like a report or a newspaper article. This is to be expected, as the writer, Wallace St. John worked (works?) for the New York Times (and wrote three articles about the team while doing research for the book). He goes into depth about the histories of the places where the boys come from and really gets to the heart of their stories, but the reporter style made it a little difficult to get engrossed in the book.

The other thing I disliked was that the author was very analytical. He didn’t seem to trust that the reader could draw the lesson or connection from a story he wrote. This is the same problem that the author of a sports memoir we are agenting has. You do not need to say the following things happened and from that I learned this,” let the story do the explaining. It’s clear that a church that integrated the refugees is an example of some people accepting the refugees, so you do not need to say “and this was an example of the refugees being accepted.”

To read more about the boys’ stories you can check out their site: outcastsunited.com.

Read the book here: Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference

Feel No Fear by Bela Karolyi

Everybody who knows anything about gymnastics (and even many who don’t) know who Bela Karolyi is. He is the man who makes champions. Under his coaching came Nadia Comanedi, Teodora Ungureanu, Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, Kim Zmeskal, Betty Okino and Dominque Moceanu, among others. He has coached nine Olympic champions, fifteen world champions, sixteen European medalists and six U.S. national champions. He revolutionized the sport (whether one would argue for the better or worse is another question). But how did he become the controversial, but highly successful man in gymnastics?

Feel No Fear tells Bela’s life story, from his desire to study sport education at the behest of his parents (in Rumania to be a coach or phys ed teacher you needed to get a degree in that area) to his first gymnastic sessions in a tiny coal mining town to his large scale success on the international level. 

Karolyi always believed that a disciplined and rigorous work ethic is the key to success. He also believed in innovation and creativity rather than copying previous success (if you copy you will always be a step behind). Karolyi’s work with young gymnasts earned him prestige in Rumania, but in a Communist world of politics, he was eventually ousted by other coaches who were jealous of his success. 

Forced to defect for his country, Bela (and his wife Marta who he met in college and who is also well known for her involvement in elite gymnastics–she is currently the women’s national team coordinator) searched for a way to rebuild his gymnastics career. With help from friends and more than a little luck, Karolyi managed to do for the American gymnasts (the believed to be too lazy and undisciplined to ever challenge on an international level) what he had for the Rumanian team. 

But though he thought he’d left behind the politics, Karolyi discovers that while somewhat different, American gymnastics was filled with politics all the same. Jealousy and maneuvering was not exclusive to Communist Rumania. Through all his struggles, his yelling matches, his fights with convention, it is clear that though his methods may be questionable to some, he truly cares about his gymnasts–his little guys, as he calls them. 

There is something touching about reading his account (an admittedly one-sided view of his methods) and finally getting to see the man behind the reputation. Even if you dislike his policies you can’t help but admire his strength and tenaciousness. 

Unfortunately, this book is from 1994, so there are questions left unanswered and events unaddressed. Hopefully a newer version will be published to include the last 15 years during which time many big things happened (including Kerri Strug’s 1996 Olympic performance on an injured foot).

I would also recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about the politics and power behind gymnastics. In shows like Make It Or Break It and in movies such as Stick It, these behind the scenes maneuverings are alluded to, but reading Karolyi’s book, you begin to really understand how deeply they run.

Check out the book: Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics

Chalked Up by Jennifer Sey

Every four years the world turns its focus on the Olympics and gymnastics is put at center stage. No one thinks that being a gymnast is easy. How many people can even conceive of flipping and tumbling and throwing their bodies in the air the way these young girls do? But knowing that being a gymnast is hard isn’t the same as understanding what these girls give up in order to be the best.

There are whispers of abuse and danger. Books like Little Girls In Pretty Boxes reveal some of this world but until 1986 US Champion Jennifer Sey’s Chalked Up it was only a distant, impersonal reality. With Sey’s autobiography we get a chance to really delve into the world of gymnastics and understand what it means to be the best.

Chalked Up shows the abusive coaches, the stage parents, the injuries, but what’s more, it shows the gymnasts. This isn’t simply a tale of finger pointing and accusation. While the coaches can certainly be faulted (for pushing unhealthy weight loss and pushing athletes to compete when not fully healed from injuries) and parents can be blamed (for pushing their kids further and not protecting them from verbal abuse), the girls push themselves just as hard. Kerri Strug is the perfect example. In the 1996 Olympics she competed on vault despite and injured foot, ensuring Team USA’s gold medal. Where most Americans view Kerri Strug’s as an amazing feat for her team, in that competitive world, few gymnasts would not have done the same.

Sey accepts much of the responsibility for her stressful childhood. She emphasizes her own competitive nature, repeating more than once that had it not manifested itself in gymnastics, it would have found its way to something else. “One cannot endure the intensity of the practices, the physical demands, the injuries and the stress of high level competitions unless there is an innate and fiery drive inside.” (California Literary Review, June 2, 2008)

Being a competitive gymnast means dedicating your life, your childhood to the sport, at a very young age. (Bela Karolyi discovered and began to mold Nadia Commenici at age 6.) And rarely with any pay off. Training is expensive and unless you earn medals in the Olympics, you won’t likely earn any money to make up for the deficit. What starts as parents trying to give their children the best, what their children want, suddenly becomes a sacrifice for the whole family. And once you’ve sacrificed so much, how can you risk ending it all? Reading Sey’s portrayal of her family is perhaps as, if not more, fascinating than what she has to say about the coaches.

For anyone who is interested in gymnastics, in what it takes to achieve excellence, this is a book worth reading. It’s honest and shocking, exposing a side of the sport that is often ignored.

What I find most fascinating is that despite everything she’s gone through, Sey says that it was all worth it.

Interested in reading? Buy the book: Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics