Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Year-in-the-life books, part IVa: Sports

This is probably the subject in which most "year-in-the-life" books are published. Sports are conveniently divided into seasons, or years, and there's a whole subset of journalists covering only sports. And how else are you going to cover sports, if you're not doing a biography? My reading represents only a small sampling. The list is alphabetical by sport.

Baseball (Little League)
Mitchell, Greg. Joy in Mudville : a little league memoir. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.
I'm not a baseball fan; I don't know if I'd have sought this out if it weren't about Little League. The writing is humorous, and the writer/father/coach seems to have a healthy perspective on kids' sports: emphasize the fun, and make sure you don't become overbearing as a coach. I like the upstate New York (well, NYC suburbs in the Hudson River area) setting. I think the team is the "Aliens;" they have a great mascot and pre-game good-luck ritual. Also a nice portrait of boys.

Blais, Madeleine. In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, c1995.
About a girls' high-school basketball team near Northampton, Mass. I expected to like this a lot more. I'd read an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine. Maybe I'd read a lot of books about women's sports before this, so this didn't stand out quite so much. These girls, in Blais's mind, were playing for the greater glory of feminism. The opening chapter, with its description of Northampton, really stood out for me, and reminded me of Madison.

Corbett, Sara. Venus to the Hoop: a gold-medal year in women’s basketball. New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, c1997.
So, here's another women's basketball story...the players who made up the 1996 U.S. Women's Olympic Team. But it was a more absorbing read for me. For a change, a U.S. Olympic team in a team sport actually trained together for a whole year, instead of the Olympic officials picking an all-star team weeks before the games. Most players were college graduates; some were playing overseas. This team WAS training and playing for the glory of women's sports. They were very consciously role-models. They were also promoting the two newly-formed women's basketball leagues: the WNBA (offshoot of the male NBA, and the ABL (American Basketball League), with different players promoting different leagues.

Feinstein, John. Season on the Brink: a
Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers.
New York : Macmillan, c1986.
This is one of the classics of the year-in-the-life "genre." Maybe not the first, but the first I remember reading. Feinstein had great subjects to work with: the complicated coach Bobby Knight, and the basketball-crazy state of Indiana. This book definitely reads like a novel.

College Sports
Telander, Rick. From Red Ink to Roses: The Turbulent Transformation of a Big Ten Program. New York: Simon & Schuster, c1994.
Telander covers not only the athletes and coaches, but the administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a year when the Badger football team won the Rose Bowl for the first time. I lived in Madison during this year, so this book was of special interest. No surprise, Telander covers mostly the revenue-producing sports, even though UW-Madison offers a huge array of competitive sports. Two sections that stood out for me: one where minority athletes discussed what it was like to attend a university where the minority student population is at about 4%; and a section about the students who play Bucky Badger, in which the students discussed the difficulties of wearing the oversized Badger head.

Other entries with "Year in the Life" books: June 20, 2006–restaurants/chefs; June 22, 2006–part II: education; August 26, 2006–part III: theater and business; Feb 21, 2007–part IVb: sports; March 28, 2007–part V: religion; April 6, 2007–part IVc: sports; and May 2, 2007–part VI: miscellaneous.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Another swimmer bio--a 2004 Olympic champ

I actually do read other kinds of books!! I even read about other sports! But lately I've been on this swimming-book binge. (See entries for June 13 2006, June 29, 2006, and July 18, 2006.)

Michael Silver's Golden girl : how Natalie Coughlin fought back, challenged conventional wisdom, and became America's olympic champion ([Emmaus, Pa.]: Rodale, 2006) came out this summer, and I snatched it up right away. For the most part, it didn't disappoint.

Natalie Coughlin competed in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

First, the bad: While Coughlin did overcome some hardships and rough spots, sometimes the author writes like Coughlin came up from abject poverty, or suffered a debilitating injury that made daily life tasks difficult, at least. The difficulties and pressure she faced came from pursuing an activity she chose--swimming--not from circumstances beyond her control. There are others in the book who've had it rougher--not the least of whom is her coach. Her story is quite an interesting one, and fortunately does make up a good deal of the book. Not to completely dismiss Coughlin's obstacles, but I don't think they're as huge as Silver makes them sound.

The author fawns a little too much over Coughlin on occasion. And it's hard to keep track of all the swimmers and coaches (especially if you put the book down for a few weeks, like I did).

Okay, the good stuff: the coach, Terri McKeever, does have an interesting story. Just being a female coach of a Division I college team is still somewhat of an anomoly. She struggles with self-esteem. She has a good track record of getting the best out of swimmers who aren't heavily recruited. She has an interesting coaching style, which leads to another strong point about the book...

...its critique of standard swimming training. After reading even a couple of books about swimming, you learn that most coaches emphasize distance training, in a huge way. McKeever does not; she takes a much more varied approach. She concentrates on the mechanics of swimming, and the swimmers having fun. That's where the "challenging conventional wisdom" part of the title comes in. McKeever definitely does, and Coughlin deserves credit for trying them out, sticking with them, and defending them.

Good point 3: insight into a collegiate-level swimming program. I liked the descriptions of building a team, recruiting, practices, and meets. When college teams are subjects of books, they're usually football or basketball teams. It's so nice to see another sport featured, especially for an individual sport like swimming.

Good point 4: the portraits of other swimmers and coaches. Hailey Cope is an especially interesting person.

Good point 5: Coughlin is an interesting person too. The book covers a critical year in her life, as she moves from college to pro ranks.

Upon reflection, I'd rate this as one of my one of my favorite swimming books. And I've read quite a few!