During my semester independent study, more than one reader suggested that I read The Sports Gene, by David Epstein. A senior writer at Sports Illustrated, Epstein made it his goal to study and elucidate the science of extraordinary athletic performance, to consider, not necessarily answer, the timeless question of nature vs. nurture in the cultivation of world class athletes.
I remember when the book came out. A friend sent me the link the New York Times press release with a note that said something like “Sounds like your kinda book, if you’re brave enough to read it.” For a long time, I wasn’t brave enough. I was afraid to read a book about a ‘sports gene.’ Why? Because I wasn’t sure how I would react if I didn’t have it.
With enough urging, I finally cracked the cover and, of course, began looking for my gene. For the first couple of chapters, I searched for the sentence that said “Anyone who is 5’9,” 150, broad shouldered, born at altitude and ate McDonalds as a kid has the magic formula. If that’s you, you can stop reading now and continue training.”
Spoiler alert: that sentence didn’t come.
It’s message, though, wasn’t altogether lost in the narrative. Once I got past those first few unnerving chapters, I realized the variance of the question of nature vs. nurture. The complication of the issue paired with Epstein’s fluid storytelling led me to break down my fears of not being the perfect athlete and study myself and my environment to find what could make me great.
Both historical and contemporary, the book travels through every theory put forth in the name of athletic science, guising information with compelling imagery and plot lines. Epstein provides more than just data, but the stories of the people who produced it. The book covers a great deal of case studies in sports from high jumping, to weigh lifting, to mushing. It gracefully addresses sensitive issues like race, gender and socioeconomic status. It considers hot topics like Kenyon long distance running, or Jamaican sprinting while also considering the cases of snow dogs, triathletes and swimmers.
The best part of the book, though, are not the athletic narratives, but the stories of the scientists themselves. Epstein unveils an entire side of the athletic world that contains 100% passion and 0% recognition. He illuminates the drama of underfunded, under followed, yet highly motivated research (sounds something like my ski career). These side stories add humanity to the science, and prove for a captivating read even for the less scientific minded. Below, he describes the office of one of his scientists:
In a converted attic storage room, under the slope of the roof on the third floor of his house in Montclair, New Jersey, Manners has his office. It’s the kind of eruption of paper and maps that one might find as the parent of a brilliant twelve-year-old who has been quietly making plans to visit Mars. Files, books in stacks, books on shelves, maps. Giant maps, affixed to the slanted ceiling, dotted with meaningfully placed tacks.
He even talks about cross country skiing, but in the context of a narrative few would expect. And, while the chapter on my sport didn’t last nearly as long as I thought it should, it led into humbling epilogue where the reader has no choice but to introspectively analyze who they are, what they do, and what they want to do.
For me, the book helped me answer my own gene question. It also gave me a framework with which I could answer many of my own training questions, while creating an athletic narrative I had never heard before. From my perspective, any person, whether they consider themselves athletic or not, could do well to give this book a read.
This was not a sponsored post, but wouldn’t it be cool if it was?