An interesting snapshot, but the story of this swimmer's life has yet to unfold

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: No Limits – the Will to SucceedBy Michael Phelps, with Alan AbrahamsonSimon Schuster 228pp, £16.99

MICHAEL PHELPS is the most successful Olympian in history: 14 gold medals in total, eight earned in Beijing. A suitable subject for autobiography? He is just 23 years old and, by his own admission, has done little since adolescence except eat, sleep and swim. You won’t read this book for its prose, but it is a study in single-mindedness.

Phelps was blessed with many factors necessary for a champion swimmer; an unusually long torso, flexible double-joints in his ankles and wrists, a very early start in the pool, a knowledgeable and supportive family, proximity to a top-class training facility, and an excellent coach. These factors are all irrelevant if a swimmer is not prepared to put in the hard hours in the training pool.

Competitive swimming is uniquely intense, even in Ireland, where it’s woefully underdeveloped. Hundreds of teenage club swimmers put in 10 hours training and more a week. Phelps titles his book No Limits – the Will to Succeed, his main theme being that if you want something badly enough, and work hard enough, you can succeed. The sporting embodiment of the American dream.

The book is organised into eight chapters, each devoted to one of the disciplines in which Phelps won gold. In accounting for his success at each discipline (belief, will, etc), he fills the chapters with stories from his life to illustrate these qualities. The artificiality of this structure soon becomes apparent: early chapters run to about 50 pages each, but later chapters can muster a mere 10 pages; the structural concept simply runs out of steam well before the book’s end.

The book touches on two causes celebres. The first is the matter of drugs. Phelps professes to be clean and it would be difficult to doubt him on the evidence. The second cause has been the effect of the Speedo LZR swimsuit, introduced early in 2008. This full-body suit, of water-repellent fabric, has been referred to as “technological doping”. Phelps makes light of the LZR controversy but, looking at the plethora of Olympic records set in Beijing, and the nature of those records, the evidence is plain for all to see. This is not to diminish Phelps’ achievement; most of his opponents also wore the LZR.

Phelps does not dwell overlong on the key personal relationships in his life – with his mother and sisters, and with his coach. His father left home when he was seven; contact was sporadic and eventually petered out. His mother, a teacher, and a strong-willed and disciplined woman, raised the family. Coach Bob Bowman seems to fill the role of father figure to the young swimmer. We hear nothing of their voices, which is a pity.

Phelps’ avowed aim is to significantly raise the status of swimming in the US. A genuine superstar, he garners much media interest. Yet the bonus that Speedo paid for his eight gold medals – unsurpassed in Olympic history – was $1 million, a fraction of the yearly income of a top baseball player. Becoming dominant in the sport may be easier than making the sport itself dominant among others.

Who should read this? Club swimmers will marvel at the race times, shudder at the training schedules, but be reassured that he and they share the same basic worries. Parents might get an idea of the dedication needed to support a top swimmer. Otherwise, it is an interesting snapshot, but the story of Phelps’ life has yet to unfold, much less be told.

Gerald Fleming is head of Met Éireann’s forecast office in Glasnevin, Dublin, and has presented weather broadcasts on RTÉ for many years. He is past chairman – and current treasurer – of Wexford Swimming Club.