How to Train with a T. Rex and Win 8 Gold Medals
Michael Phelps and Alan Abrahamson (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, $17.99)
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say upfront that I really wanted to make fun of Michael Phelps' new children's book, How to Train with a T. Rex and Win Eight Gold Medals.
I wanted to make a bunch of jokes about a cartoon version of Phelps telling a cartoon Ms. California that everyone deserves the right to get married, and reminding kids that cell phone cameras will be confiscated every time he and his cartoon posse walk into a room.
But the truth is - and maybe this is the result of having a kid of my own on the way - I kind of liked it. There isn't exactly a narrative there, and the inclusion of a Tyrannosaurus Rex makes very little sense, even in the illogical world of children's books. But it has a nice message and some cool illustrations by Ward Jenkins.
I don't even have the heart to make a wisecrack about its lack of strippers. Perhaps because I'm as familiar with the Phelps story as anyone - having covered him for the last four years for The Baltimore Sun - I enjoyed this book more than his actual autobiography, also co-written by former Los Angeles Times reporter Alan Abrahamson.
Children's books are a tricky road to navigate for professional athletes, especially when their personal lives are tabloid fodder. Kids do look up to them, and parents expect them to act as role models because of this. But at the same time, 23-year-old men of considerable wealth and fame generally do not behave like saints.
It always annoys me the way Olympic athletes - Phelps in particular - are marketed as if they're a blend of virtue and patriotism. They're held to unrealistic standards because they're supposed to represent an all-American ideal - the humble kid who works hard, drinks nothing but milk and loves his mom - when in reality, they're human beings with flaws and desires, just like the rest of us. Far too often, then, children's books by professional athletes seem more like a calculated PR maneuver, a way to reconnect with the fan base and polish an image tarnished by a public misstep. You can decide for yourself whether that's the case here.
All that said, Phelps does genuinely care about kids. I've seen him sign autographs for junior swimmers at meets for more than an hour, even though he was exhausted from a day of competition. And at Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in Mount Washington, he is famous for his patience with kids who want to take his picture or tug on his sleeve and ask for an autograph. So while I'm a natural cynic, I'm also inclined to believe there are sincere motives behind this book.
The main lesson of How to Train With a T. Rex and Win 8 Gold Medals is that you need to work hard to achieve your dreams, but it's really a book about math. From 1998 to 2003, Phelps swam 60,000 meters a week, which amounts to 12,480 miles over six years. How does Phelps help kids understand how far that is? With a picture of him swimming to the North Pole and back, and then his coach telling him to do it again. And a picture of him swimming the length of the Great Wall of China three times.
What's the equivalent of eating 10,000 calories, which Phelps says he did every day during training? About 912 pizzas a year, which the cartoon Phelps demonstrates by sitting at a table (joined by his bulldog, Herman, my favorite character in the book) with a knife and fork in hand while a mountain of pizza, and then another, is delivered to him.
We even learn that Phelps strengthened his legs by leg pressing 300 pounds 60 times every workout (18,000 pounds), which is the equivalent of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and 10 velociraptors. I'm assuming dinosaurs are a big selling point with kids, because this is their only appearance in the book, yet the T. Rex gets top billing in the title. (If I were cartoon Herman, I'd have threatened to stay in my cartoon trailer until Phelps' agent, Peter Carlise, got me equal billing with the T. Rex.)
All this builds to the revelation that in Phelps' last individual race, the 100-meter butterfly, he won by one one-hundredth of a second. The length of a finger nail. It's a nice lesson to teach kids, that you can work ridiculously hard for a long time and accomplish your goals by the slimmest of margins.
And as Phelps can attest, only the cynic who doesn't work hard enough would dare suggest that childhood fantasies can't become a reality.