Make no mistake – this is not a gentle book on how to swim or improve your skills in the sport. This book is about competing and winning against some of the world’s best. Michael Phelps likes to compete. It took him all the way to titles at World Championships and the Olympics. Beneath The Surface – his autobiography – is an action packed-ride.
Phelps starts human. At journey’s start there is that worry common to many of us – fear of water. It soon fades secondary to purpose found in life for hyperactive youngster. There is nothing like buckets of energy meeting well defined purpose. Notwithstanding humor and casual writing style, I found the book intense. It sticks to subject and packs in details. It isn’t just timings in finals that find mention; the timings in practice, at trials, heats – all get cited because at this level of competition every sub-second shaved, counts. A portrait of the world’s greatest Olympian and athlete comes alive in that space. I read this book to know more about Phelps, an icon in my times. He had his idols – the Australian great Ian Thorpe finds ample mention. Mark Spitz, a legend by 1972, thirteen years before Phelps was born, makes an appearance. Given its central protagonist heads for the Olympics, you also get a glimpse of the Games and life at Olympic Games villages as seen through the eyes of a young, rookie Olympian, progressively moving on to – as seen by a star.
What struck me after reading the book was how much running dominates our idea of athlete. With no disrespect meant to the greats of track, fact is – Phelps has a breadth and depth to his swimming that makes glories elsewhere seem like a side act. He competes in distances ranging from 100m to 400m and that includes the individual medley, which requires you to be good at all four strokes used in swimming. He also participates in the relay; a discipline that brings out the thrill in being part of a team. He is a winner across these disciplines. Phelps tackles packed schedule with multiple swims – ranging from heats to finals – sometimes happening on the same day. If you dwell a bit on the level of competition at these races, the timings returned and the laurels at stake – you realize how energy sapping these performances are on participants. Not surprisingly, you are also introduced to swimmers swimming down after an intense session in the pool. It helps lower the lactic acid build-up in their body. And lest one forget, you cannot swim to such elite timings or face packed schedules at races, if your training sessions don’t push you to the limit. All this goes into the making of a top notch competitive swimmer. However for some reason, in our mind, swimming does not command the profile track athletics does. When we are asked about the greatest athletes ever, our mind quickly seeks names from the list of track athletes. Phelps talks of the popularity swimming enjoyed in the Australia of Thorpe’s time. He wishes the same was possible in the US and rejoices every time signs of it emerge.
The autobiography embraces the reality of sponsorship and media. It describes how sponsorship, media and publicity are handled such that an athlete’s focus on his / her work is not disturbed by distractions. It casts light on the suggestions Phelps received on how to handle the media. Above all the book gives you a ringside view of what a coach means to athlete and how their bonding and collaboration work in modern sport. Phelp’s achievements are as much his as they are of Bob Bowman, his coach. Together, they work on perfecting Phelps’s techniques, hone his competitive instincts, smash world records and make the swimmer, the most successful Olympian yet. As important as Bowman in Phelps’s journey to greatness is his family. His mother and two sisters (both sisters are swimmers) are there for him. It clearly shows that while success has often been depicted as a person’s battle against odds including lack of family, the reverse can also be true – supportive family works. After 23 gold medals won at the Olympics, you don’t need more proof; do you?
This is an interesting book. It is tad heavy on details around timing but it tells you what champions are made of, what their ecosystem is like. The book’s weakness is also pretty much the same. You get to know a lot about competitive swimming; not much about what human engagement with water through an act called swimming, means.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)