Over the next few weeks I expect to be sleep deprived and living in a daily news bubble. Every bleary eyed daily interaction that follows will be worth staying up past my bedtime to cheer athletes from around the world. My own obsession began with Nadia Comaneci and I’m convinced Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Gabrielle Douglas will excite a whole new generation of fans. After all, the Olympics don’t come around every year and the spectacle, willpower and determination of the competitors is riveting.
In “How to Train with a T-Rex and Win 8 Gold Medals” by Michael Phelps and Alan Abrahamson, Phelps provides insight into his success, translating the hard work it required into stunning numbers and easy to understand terms. He trained for six whole years--a kindergartner’s entire life--swimming a total of 12,480 miles during that time. “That’s 183,040 trips around the bases” and it’s “like swimming the full length of the Great Wall of China three times!” His legs became so strong he could press “300 pounds 60 times” which is the equivalent of pressing a tyrannosaurus rex and ten velociraptors. Children will enjoy the comparisons and will have a deeper understanding of the preparation it takes to be an Olympic athlete. An added bonus is that they will be able to follow Phelps’ pursuit of a new record for the most Olympic medals.
Triumphant stories like Wilma Rudloph’s embody the spirit of the Olympic games. I had heard of her athleticism, but until I read Kathleen Krull’s picture book biography, I had no idea of the adversity she had overcome. “Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman” tells the story of her start as a sickly child, born weighing slightly more than four pounds to a family of nineteen. As soon as she “could walk, she ran or jumped instead,” but illness continued to plague her. When she was 5 and sick with scarlet fever and polio, her “left leg twisted inward, and she couldn’t move it back.” Undeterred, Wilma hopped everywhere she needed to go. Eventually, she was able to walk with a brace and finally attend school. She worked hard to exercise her leg and one day stood outside of church, removed her brace and walked down the aisle. Parishioners were amazed and though she had to put the brace back on, eventually she was able to remove it permanently. Her recovery was so complete she played high school basketball and, because of her speed, was given a full athletic scholarship to college. Making the 1960 Olympic track and field team, she won three gold medals and was honored in her small town at their first ever integrated events.
Many books offer understanding of the events themselves. Jason Page’s aptly named “Olympic Sports” series for preschoolers and early elementary students has titles like “Swimming, Diving and Other Water Sports” which present brief introductions with facts and photos. “You Wouldn't Want to Be a Greek Athlete: Races You'd Rather Not Run” by Michael Ford harks back to the very beginning Some of the rules of the ancient games are obvious, cheating wasn’t allowed and resulted in a fine. Others are surprising, you weren’t allowed to kill your opponent when boxing or wrestling, “either deliberately or accidentally.” The book’s spirit of good fun continues throughout and is accompanied by cartoon illustrations.
Originally published in the 7/30/12 Free Lance-Star newspaper.