Too many biographies of young athletes aren’t ready for prime time
I was in the sports section of Barnes & Noble. I’m there a lot. I was searching for new sports books, and there it was: “Michael Phelps: Beneath the Surface,” an autobiography of the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.
Michael Phelps is 23 years old. I can’t imagine what life he’d have to talk about. But it gets worse. “Beneath the Surface” was written in 2004, when he was merely 19. Who else but professional athletes and teen celebrities co-author autobiographies at 19? Especially those who spend most of their time in the water.
Even if you’re an Olympic athlete, and you’ve reached your competitive peak, get real: 19 is too young to be writing an autobiography. Could a 19-year-old gold medalist have already lived enough of a life to fill a book?
And if the biography and the fluff pieces on the Olympics are anything to go by, Michael Phelps has no life. He wakes up, eats (a lot), swims (a lot), and sleeps (a lot). There are a couple mentions of his dog, some stories about his mother and sisters. That’s pretty much it. It doesn’t even really seem like he has much of a social life.
Look, MP, here’s a tip—if you’re going to write a completely superfluous book about your life at 19, at least give me something juicy. Do you have a girlfriend? A boyfriend? Do you do anything other than eat, swim and sleep?
The only remotely savory tidbit in the book is about his 2004 DUI arrest. But if you’re interested enough in Michael Phelps to be purchasing his “life” story, you’d probably already know that (after all, the incident was covered by most major news agencies). We read the reports and heard the apology. It was a one-time event—or non-event. He drank too much, and he made the bad decision to get behind the wheel of a car. No casualties, no hard-time served. Does this warrant a 242 page memoir?
In fact, the most interesting parts of the book are about what happens to other people: his sister’s bulimia, his mother’s sacrifices, his childhood friends being left behind. If you can’t make yourself the most engaging part of your own autobiography, that should tell you something.
It’s not as if Phelps is the only perpetrator of a premature autobiography. David Beckham co-wrote one in 2004 called ”Both Feet on the Ground” in which, as Amazon.com reports, he “candidly reveals the pressures of celebrity, his role as a fashion trendsetter, the importance of being a supportive father, and his life as one of the world’s most famous athletes.”
Natalie Coughlin, winner of three gold medals, co-wrote “Golden Girl” in 2006, at 24, about her struggle to recover from a back injury to perform at the Olympics. How many athletes have overcome an injury and gone on to succeed? Quite a few, I would think. Save your money.
But then there’s lineman Michael Oher, who breaks the mold. Oher was featured in the book “The Blind Side” by journalist Michael Lewis, who also wrote the widely-read baseball book “Moneyball.” As a child, Oher was in and out of homeless shelters and living in the Memphis ghetto. But then he was taken in by an upper-class white family, sent to a Christian high school, and is now the starting left tackle for the University of Mississippi Rebels. A TV movie is reportedly in the works.
He’s only 22, yet somehow, to me, this seems different. Perhaps it’s because it’s not about football. Oher’s story is about overcoming huge odds and succeeding despite all he’s been through. If Michael Phelps had had a similar journey, his story might be, well, a different story.