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On Sports

Beating the odds on the field - and off

By Bill Littlefield
May 3, 2009
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AGE IS JUST A NUMBER: Achieve Your
Dreams At Any Stage In Your Life

By Dara Torres with Elizabeth Weil
Broadway, 227 pp., illustrated, $24.95

’78: The Boston Red Sox, a Historic
Game, and a Divided City

By Bill Reynolds
New American Library, 310 pp., illustrated, $24.95

A TERRIBLE SPLENDOR: Three
Extraordinary Men, a World
Poised For War, and the Greatest
Tennis Match Ever Played

By Marshall Jon Fisher
Crown, 336 pp., illustrated, $25

OUTCASTS UNITED: A Refugee
Team, an American Town

By Warren St. John
Spiegel & Grau, 307 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Grit, good coaching, flexible training methods, spectacular genes, however she's done it, Dara Torres is a wonder.

Who else has won 12 medals over five nonconsecutive Olympics and beaten women half her age? No, make that women less than half her age.

Wait, there's more. Who else could have soared through the elite ranks of US swimmers throughout her college career while suffering from an eating disorder that would have debilitated a lesser mortal, then recovered sufficiently to look today like one of the most thoroughly fit life forms on the planet.

But all that is not enough. Now Torres - with Elizabeth Weil - has written a book about her challenges and triumphs. The result is "Age Is Just A Number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Stage in Your Life."

Some people who read this book probably will be encouraged to attempt to achieve their dreams, no matter how dinged-up they are. Others will scan the list of the achievements of Torres, who is not dinged-up at all, and wonder how they have managed to fritter away their days in dreary pursuits such as work on dry land. They will conclude that they have no right to breathe the same air she does, and consider doing away with themselves.

Read "Age Is Just A Number" if you dare.

On the other hand, read "'78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City" by Bill Reynolds if you want to be reminded of the fun the Red Sox provided fans in the 1970s and the racism that became apparent when Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. attempted through his busing plan to undue the nasty work the Boston School Committee had been about for decades. The two currents - the Red Sox and the busing crisis - rarely intersected, but when they did, they made for strange days.

Take Red Sox pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee. The left-hander saw no reason to conceal from Major League Baseball his use of marijuana on his pancakes because (he claimed with a straight face) it helped him tolerate the smog when he ran through Boston. And likewise he saw no reason to refrain from commenting on the bigotry he saw in the city where he played.

In "A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised For War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played," Marshall Jon Fisher explores the history of another era.

One of the three men around whom the book is built is Baron Gottfried von Cramm, an aristocratic tennis champion. Gifted, gallant, and gay, the baron comes to realize that he is safe from persecution by Hitler's thugs only as long as he wins tennis matches in England and France, thus enhancing the prestige of the fatherland.

The second extraordinary man is Don Budge, whose opposition inspires the baron to play the best tennis of his career, particularly in their Davis Cup singles battle in 1937, the aforementioned "greatest tennis match ever played."

The third man is Bill Tilden, the former champion who helped coach the German team in 1937. Ironically, Tilden, who also was gay, eventually suffered persecution in the United States similar to that endured by von Cramm in Germany, though Tilden seems to have been less discreet and much more self-destructive.

"Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town" chronicles the adventures of a courageous and resourceful woman named Luma Mufleh and the soccer players she coaches in Clarkston, Ga.

"Coach Luma" is a native of Jordan who graduates from Smith and decides not to go home. This scandalizes her wealthy family. Mufleh's father cuts her off, and in the course of making her own way in her new homeland, she meets a group of teenage refugees who have nothing in common but poverty and loss.

The boys and the remaining fragments of their families fled wars in Bosnia, Iraq, Sudan, Liberia, and other desperate places. They resettled in housing projects outside Atlanta, where jobs were menial, prospects bleak, and their mothers kept telling them they were lucky to be alive. Through determination and an exceptional sense of when to be strict and when to be unconditionally supportive, Mufleh molds these traumatized kids into teams and helps them find joy in their lives. Her project is ongoing. Her energy and her achievement, as chronicled by Warren St. John, are inspiring.

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio's "Only a Game." His most recent book is also titled "Only a Game."

AGE IS JUST A NUMBER: Achieve Your Dreams At Any Stage In Your Life

By Dara Torres

with Elizabeth Weil

Broadway, 227 pp., illustrated, $24.95

'78: The Boston Red Sox, a Historic Game, and a Divided City By Bill Reynolds

New American Library, 310 pp., illustrated, $24.95

A TERRIBLE SPLENDOR: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised For War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played By Marshall Jon Fisher

Crown, 336 pp., illustrated, $25

OUTCASTS UNITED: A Refugee Team, an American Town

By Warren St. John

Spiegel & Grau, 307 pp.,

illustrated, $24.95