Book Review: Mayuresh Didolkar

One of my pet peeve as a lifelong sports fan is that very often interesting athletes end up writing boring autobiographies, ( Mc'Enroe's 'Serious' a good example) and often sports historian end up distorting epoch making sports event or , worse still, bury the magic of those insane moments beneath tons of data and very boring analysis. At the 1989 Kona Ironman Triathlon world championships, the winner and runner-up in men's category stayed within a few seconds of each other on the bike leg and ran the marathon leg literally shoulder to shoulder till about 40 kms, when the winner Mark Allen finally broke the runner up Dave Scott's will, and ran away with the race. What made this race even more fascinating was the fact that Mark had been chasing Dave pretty much all his triathlete career and could never get past him at the world championships at Kona. Fascinating stuff eh? Yet Matt Fitzgerald's "Iron War- Two incredible athletes, one epic rivalry. The Greatest race of all Time" (catchy title huh?) ranges mostly from inane to utterly ludicrous. The books discussed below all come from sports non-fiction category (there is one about mountaineering, bear with me please!), and all but one of them take us through the playing careers of an elite athlete. And all of these books do a better than average job of telling us the story. So here, in no particular order, is a list of sports non-fiction books you must read.

1. A Champion's Mind- Pete Sampras.

Described by one critic as "Pete's 15th Slam", 'A Champion's mind' is possibly the best athlete autobiography I have read till date. Taking Pete's stunning triumph at Flushing Meadows as a prodigious 19 year old in 1990 , and his final hurrah against the same opponent thirteen years later as the bookends, the book tells us about the hardships , the sacrifices and the mind boggling commitment needed to stay at top in a sports as fiercely competitive as tennis. The real appeal of this book lies in Pete's willingness to bare-it-all, unexpected from such a reserved and private person. He tells us about how the loss to Stefan Edberg at the 1992 US open sparked an internal dialogue that changed his life as a pro-athlete forever. The parts where Pete discussed about wringing every ounce of his potential reads like a blue-print of overachievement. The chapters talking about his maniacal quest to finish 6th year as Top tennis player in the ATP rankings show the soul crushing loneliness of pro-athletes and the bloody mindedness needed to remain on top. His warrior moment, the gritty 5 set win over Alex Corretja at the US open 1996 quarterfinal, is an experience that will stay with us long after we are done reading.

2. Open - Andre Agassi.

Throughout their illustrious careers, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, pushed, punished and ultimately defined each other. While Pete, in his unique style inflicts one last cut by relegating Andre to only a few slam finals and a footnote, Andre's autobiography "Open", in many ways is a story of how a fiercely competitive Agassi chased Pete all through his playing days. In their playing days, Andre was often the colourful, charismatic loser while Pete remained the aloof and kind of one dimensional champion that some people mistook for dull. Similarly, while "A Champion's Mind" is definitely more value for money from inspiration and learning perspective, "Open" is of course vastly more entertaining. From Andre's early struggles with temper tantrums to his close partnerships with his trainer Gil Reyes and coach Brad Gilbert, and from his epic on court battles with Pete (It's always Pete! at one point a frustrated Andre exclaims !) to his romance with fellow champion Steffi Graf, "Open" is like the man himself- full of flaws and inconsistencies and yet capable of breath-taking beauty and touching honesty that keeps a reader glued.

3. Into Thin Air: A personal account of the Mt Everest disaster- Jon Krakauer

A close friend, an elite mountaineer who had summited Mt Everest the year before, gave this book to me and jokingly said "Read this book and you will never want to climb any peak in your life!" The harrowing first person account of the disastrous climbing season of 1996 on Mt Everest that left eight people dead in a single day, "Into Thin Air" shows nature in all of its merciless majesty and man alternating between selfish chaser of glory and brave adventurer willing to risk it all. Krakauer, who was one of the few survivors of the expedition, narrates how the rivalry between two expedition guides eventually resulted into a catastrophe, leaving many members from both teams stranded as the weather took turn for the worse. The professional rivalry between Krakauer's guide Rob Hall and the leader of other expedition Scott Fischer, meant that the heroics of Anatoli Boukreev (a guide with Fischer's expedition, Boukreev mounted several solo rescue mission in blizzard like conditions with no supplementary oxygen and saved the lives of two of his clients.) have been presented in less than flattering light. For all the logical arguments provided by the author, the fact remained that Boukreev ventured out in extreme weather conditions while the author himself kept sleeping in his tent. Yet for all its narrative flaws "Into Thin Air" remains a must read tale of never dying human spirit.

4. A life without limits : a world champion's journey - Chrisse Wellington

Triathlete Chrisse Wellington never lost an iron distance race in her career. (Iron distance: 3.8 km of swimming, 180 kms of cycling and a full marathon) She is not about to start losing when it comes to writing. Starting from her struggles with bulimia as a young woman that nearly tore her family apart to her self-discovery trip to Nepal and from a casual participation in London marathon to the heady heights of winning Kona Ironman four times, the book records the emotional struggles, the inner dialogues and the inspirations of an elite athlete with searing truthfulness without making the goings heavy at any point. On field Chrissie was known to run with a permanent smile on her face, the book makes an effort to find the pain and the struggles behind that smiling face. Consider this book as Chrisse's Fifth World Championship title!!

5. Eat and Run- Scott Jurek

Scott Jurek is to ultra-running what probably Sachin Tendulkar is to cricket. An icon who nearly transcends the sports he competes in. An athlete known as much for his near inhuman capacity to withstand pain as he is known for his vegan diet and simple, closer to earth living philosophy. In this autobiography, Scott takes us through a journey beginning from his childhood in Minnesota all the way to present day. The earlier chapters where his mother's illness and parent's separation scarred a young Jurek are really touching and perhaps gives us an understanding into his later life philosophy. We also get to meet his charismatic best friend Dusty and their close, often turbulent relationship that changed both men. Jurek gives one recipe from his vegan cook book at the end of each chapter as an added bonus. For a ringside view of the world of ultra-running and what goes into making of an elite runner, this book is a must read.

Mayuresh Didolkar is novelist, investment advisor, marathoner and occasional stand-up comedian.
Can be reached at @freentglty