Diving into Phelps' memories

bookreview

December 07, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

No Limits: The Will to Succeed

By Michael Phelps with Alan Abrahamson

Simon and Schuster / 240 pages / $26

As the Beijing Olympics grow smaller and smaller in our rearview mirrors, you might want to ask yourself these questions before you pick up Michael Phelps' autobiography, No Limits, which comes out this week:

What is there left to say about Phelps' phenomenal performance in Beijing that hasn't already been said? And if there is anything left to be said, how can it be told in a way that is more than just a quickie, post-Olympics update that rehashes his life story and weaves it into a first-person narrative?

No Limits - which was written by former Los Angeles Times reporter Alan Abrahamson, now of NBC Sports - never quite figures out how to overcome these two obstacles.

This is the third authorized biography that Phelps has been a part of during his short career, although this edition warranted the largest payday for Phelps, reportedly in the neighborhood of $1.6 million. And while no one can deny that his Olympic accomplishments merit considerable praise, it's become increasingly apparent that his oft-told life story and his milquetoast public personality have made it difficult to write praise-worthy prose.

Abrahamson does his best to channel Phelps' voice throughout the 200-plus pages, and he often does a nice job of sprinkling in previously unreported details about Phelps' incredible 10-day run in China. But because the story is presented in the first person, as though Phelps is actually speaking to the reader, it requires a serious suspension of disbelief when Phelps starts talking about subjects that are important to the narrative in a clear departure from the way he typically expresses himself.

Over the past year or so, I've traveled around the globe covering Phelps for The Baltimore Sun, and I've asked him hundreds of questions. I've listened to him answer hundreds of other reporters' questions. He is not an artist or a deep-thinker; he's a machine. That isn't a knock on him. If he were either of the former, he probably wouldn't be Michael Phelps. But this is how Phelps, in No Limits, describes France's Fabian Gilot minutes after the 400-meter freestyle relay, the most exciting race of the Olympics, which was won by the underdog Americans by .08 of a second:

"One of the French racers, Gilot, said afterward 'C'est le sport' which means literally, 'It's sport,' but in this context really meant 'That is why you race the race.' "

If Michael Phelps ever uttered a sentence like this, the entire contingent of international swimming media would faint on the pool deck.

But when Abrahamson channels Phelps' real voice, the result is also unsettling. This is how Phelps describes the emotional buildup before the 400 free relay, when the four American swimmers - Phelps, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak and Ben Weber-Gale - huddled together one last time on the pool deck:

"We were like: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Bouncing up and down. Ready to rock. Fired up."

The book does offer up occasional snippets of previously unpublished material, such as Phelps' admission that he broke his hand in 2005 punching a wall.

"In the fall of 2005, the first week of November, I was hanging out in Ann Arbor with a bunch of swimmers," Phelps says. "I was not in a very good state of mind. I don't remember why. Boys will be boys, I guess. In fact, I don't recall very much about the entire thing except that we were at this guy's house and I hit something with my right hand - maybe a post, maybe a wall. I don't even remember why I hit it. I'm not aggressive like that. It was just a weird situation."

The book peaks, as it should, in the chapter that describes the 100-meter butterfly final in Beijing, where Phelps out-touched Serbia's Milorad Cavic by .01 seconds to win his seventh gold. And it includes a humorous description of Phelps' sister, Whitney, arguing with a Dutch woman who was unlucky enough to draw seats behind the Phelps family in the Beijing Water Cube and who demanded Whitney sit during the race. "I'm watching my brother and I'm going to stand!" Whitney shouts. "He's a good swimmer and you're going to have to tackle me if you want me to sit down."

The book closes, though, by skimming over or ignoring some of the most interesting questions about Phelps' story: What does it mean to be famous in America? How do you not lose a piece of yourself when your wealth and your status mean that people are going to have trouble being honest with you? And what kind of man will Phelps one day decide he wants to be outside the pool, when he leaves behind his mother and his coach to form his own family?

Those questions, and perhaps others, may be best answered in the inevitable fourth Phelps autobiography, likely to be published in 2013.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is a sports reporter for The Baltimore Sun who covered Phelps at the Beijing Olympics.

excerpt

"I looked over to where Bob had to be, pointed that way with my left hand, slapped the water with both hands and roared in victory, Olympic champion again, four years ago by four-hundredths of a second, now by one-hundredth, the smallest margin there was or ever could be. Mark Spitz had won seven medals at a single Olympics; now with stupendously hard work, ferocious willpower, and a little luck, so had I."

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