Phelps dives into memoir, comes up sincere

April 10, 2005|By Michael Gray | Michael Gray,Sun Staff

Beneath the Surface

By Michael Phelps with Brian Cazeneuve. Sports Publishing LLC. 229 pages. $24.95.

The as-told-to sports book can be a self-defeating enterprise.

Whether written to explore the subtleties of a particular game (as in the new Buzz Bissinger-Tony LaRussa baseball collaboration, Three Nights in August), to give us an in-depth portrait of an athlete (cyclist Lance Armstrong's memoir) or even to make a fast buck (see Jose "Juiced" Canseco), it faces a fundamental quandary: Presenting the rich drama inherent in sports and life's struggles through the often less than thoughtful voice of a coach or athlete.

In books aimed at young people, as is Baltimore swimmer Michael Phelps' brand new memoir, Beneath the Surface, that dichotomy can be even more pronounced.

For the rabid sports fan, though, that is not always a problem. We eagerly devour the most innocuous details, sure that they will give us some new insight into the hows and whys of our heroes and our favorite games.

It's why, as an adolescent Oakland Raiders fan, I devoured aging quarterback George Blanda's justly forgotten as-told-to, Alive and Kicking. And why, as a slightly more jaundiced adult, I was thrilled to stumble across an old paperback that worked my baseball hero, Willie Mays, into an awful murder mystery (including a helpful page of tips on playing center field).

But often, the subjects of as-told-to's are already well-told, if not better-told, tales. If, for instance, you've read even a fraction of the more than 500 articles about swimmer Michael Phelps that have appeared in The Sun -- from his first mention in July 1993 (when he set an area swim-league record for boys 8 and under) to this past week's chronicling of his dominant performance at the U.S. swimming trials -- you are already more than familiar with the young man you meet in his new book.

Beneath the Surface does not quite live up to its title, staying mostly in the shallow end of the pool. In bite-size chapters, Phelps, with Sports Illustrated writer Brian Cazaneuve, covers everything from the moment of his birth (June 30, 1985) to his DUI charge in November last year (the month, coincidentally, when the book initially was set for release).

But at a time when a book like Canseco's self-serving 'roid rant is on best-seller lists, Phelps' slim self-portrait is something of a breath of fresh air. It is very much like reading a teenager's diary -- or maybe blog is more apt. It's a self-aware but mostly superficial monologue in which almost no insigni-ficant detail is left out, from Michael's split times in practice heats to the movie he saw on his first date (Jurassic Park II) to the dutiful naming of every one of his corporate sponsors.

Phelps and Cazaneuve touch on some of the out-of-the-pool drama that has shaped the swimmer's life -- his hyperactivity, his parents' divorce, his sister's physical struggles -- but they never make things uncomfortable for anyone, including Phelps. There is, for instance, more elaborate discussion of BONG, the "secret" language swimmers at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club used to confuse their coaches, than there is of Phelps' feelings about his strained relationship with his father. Even so, in the context of this otherwise gee-whiz narrative, a young man's confusion and disappointment over that predicament come through.

The one place where the book does get below the surface is in its depiction of Phelps' relationship with his coach, Bob Bowman. It's clear that Phelps understands and values what Bowman, who has been coaching him since he was 11, has meant to his success. But he also understands the converse. Even if he wants to come off as wide-eyed about all he has accomplished -- and surely still will -- Phelps can't help betray a supreme competitor's passion and pride.

Beneath the Surface concludes with an apology: Phelps' mea culpa for his drunken driving incident. It is straightforward and sincere, even if it reads like it was written by his sports marketing handlers.

Maybe a truer gauge of the character of this swimming phenom, who is still just 19 years old, can be found at the beginning of the book, In five pages of acknowledgments, Phelps manages to thank at least 145 people and organizations, from childhood friends to his orthodontist's wife. If he somehow forgot anyone, I'm sure he's truly sorry about that.

Michael Gray is The Sun's Features Enterprise Editor.

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