What does it take to become an Olympic athlete? Three top competitors—including two Olympic veterans and one who will participate in this summer’s games—have crafted memoirs that describe their early life challenges and their struggles to achieve on the world athletic stage.

Swimmer Amanda Beard has competed in every Olympics since 1996, gaining a total of seven medals, including two gold. She participated in 2008 without medaling and fell just short of qualifying this year (at the age of 30). In the Water They Can’t See You Cry, co-written with Rebecca Paley, is Beard’s account of her personal life and her Olympic experiences, a journey strewn with disappointments—from her parents’ divorce to her own struggle with self-esteem and body image issues, including episodes of self-mutilation. Beard's narrative is heartfelt, and she ably recounts the confusion of her youth and the dedication to swimming that helped her push through the uncertainty found in other areas of her life. With athletic success have come opportunities in self-marketing and product endorsements and especially high-profile modeling gigs with Maxim, FHM and Playboy, all of which Beard has embraced in the spirit of savvy entrepreneurship while continuing to strive in the pool. Yet she has also found happiness in marriage and motherhood, and appears now to have finally balanced her professional endeavors with personal satisfaction. Her memoir also provides interesting viewpoints on the Olympic social culture at the games in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing, and serves as a readable profile of an athlete who first achieved internationally as a teenager, then continued to compete in spite of physical changes (specifically, a sudden growth spurt in late adolescence) and emotional upheavals.

Lopez Lomong’s upbringing in Africa is in stark contrast to Beard’s California experience. Still a boy when separated from his parents and siblings during civil war in his native Sudan, Lomong ended up in a U.N. refugee camp in Kenya, where, under the auspices of Catholic Charities, he was eventually accorded an opportunity to emigrate to the United States, where he was adopted by a supportive foster family in Syracuse, New York. Co-authored by Mark Tabb, Lomong’s Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games relates the frightening and almost miraculous tale of his survival in Africa, his adjustment to America (including gaining citizenship in 2007), and his transition from talented soccer player to world-class distance runner with Olympic aspirations. Lomong was the 2008 Olympic flag bearer for the U.S. in Beijing and will compete in London in the 5,000-meter race. Lomong’s inspiring memoir also includes the back-story on an HBO feature in which he returned to Africa to reunite with his parents, whom he thought were dead, and his brothers, who eventually immigrated to the U.S.

Reigning Olympic decathlon champion Bryan Clay won the silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics and took the gold in ’08 in Beijing. (In June, at the U.S. Olympic trials, Clay clipped a hurdle and failed to qualify for the London games.) In Redemption: A Rebellious Spirit, a Praying Mother, and the Unlikely Path to Olympic Gold, co-written with Joel Kilpatrick, Clay reveals that his journey has been one of emotional as well as physical challenge. Like Beard a child of divorce, he dealt with serious anger issues through his younger years, seeking out opportunities to party hard in his adolescence even while gaining strength as a multifaceted athlete. His mother’s religious influence played a key role in Clay enrolling in California’s small Azusa Pacific University, a stoutly Christian college but one that also boasts a strong track and field program. There, Clay honed his competitive skills, met the woman who would become his wife, and found comfort in commitment to his Christian faith—all on his way to Olympic glory. 

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