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Daniel James Brown

Great Books about Sacrifice and Olympic Glory


The Summer Olympics are off to a fine start. Who can resist the joyful, ebullient faces of the athletes from all over the globe as they enter the Olympic stadium? Each of those athletes has a story to tell. Of sacrifice, of heartbreaking failure, of a struggle out of poverty, and of the love of family who believed in them. We love books about Olympic athletes to remind us that no matter how insurmountable the odds, it’s always possible to succeed with grace and grit. And since kids love to gather around the TV at night to watch these athletes and dream their own dreams of success, we found some children’s and young adult books to encourage those dreams.

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The Boys in the Boat. Daniel James Brown’s book tells the remarkable true story of the University of Washington’s eight-man rowing team who won gold in the infamous summer Olympics of 1936, the same Olympics that made Jesse Owens, rightfully, one of the most famous American athletes of the games. This book, which reads like a novel, describes the unlikely confluence of elements that created a team Olympic champions: 8 earnest and hardworking boys from the bleak 1930’s Pacific Northwest into a world-class, a brilliant and skilled boat maker, and a clever coach who somehow found a way to conquer a national field of qualifiers, and finally, defeat the best rowing teams in the world. This book was also recently released for young readers. THE BOYS IN THE BOAT YOUNG READERS EDITION.

PBS recently produced a one-hour documentary based on the Boys in the Boat.

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UNBROKEN: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, is Laura Hillenbrand’s recounting of Louis Zamperini, who, from an incorrigible hell raiser as a youth, become one of the most talented runners in the Berlin Olympics. When World War II interrupted his plans for the 1940 Olympics and he became an airman in the army. When his air force bomber crashed in Pacific, he drifted on a lifeboat with his surviving crew members, surviving shark attacks, starvation, thirst and enemy aircraft attacks and finally, an even greater challenge. This story of desperation, hope, resolve and finally, survival, is what Entertainment Weekly called “an astonishing testament to the superhuman power of tenacity.”

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No history of the Olympics would be complete without the telling of Jesse Owens glorious triumph at the 1936 Olympics. In Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics, Jeremy Schaap tells the story of what really happened over the tense, exhilarating weeks during the 1936 Olympics. Set against a backdrop of swastikas, Owens, an African-American son of sharecroppers won 4 gold medals. Schaap enriches this well known legend with previously unpublished interviews of Owens’ family and archival research to retell this dramatic tale of Owens and his teammates.  

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For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton. You may remember Eric Liddell as the Olympic gold medalist from the Academy Award winning film Chariots of Fire. Liddell would not run on Sunday because of his strict Christian faith and, as a result, he did not compete in his signature event, the 100 meters, at the 1924 Paris Olympics. He was the greatest sprinter in the world at the time, and his choice not to run was ridiculed by fellow athletes and the press the British Olympic committee. He did compete in a new event for him, winning gold in the 400 meters. His faith let him to China to missionary work and during war he was interned at a Japanese work camp with other westerners. His Christianity was tested as he counseled fellow prisoners and gave up his meals to others more in need. He died just before the end of the war and was mourned around the world. His story of sacrifice still inspires the next generation.

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Winners Never Quit! Mia Hamm, American soccer champion, the world’s top goal scorer and three-time Olympian tells a story about perseverance and teamwork. In this motivational story, little Mia becomes frustrated after losing a match. Her teammates decide to teach her a gentle lesson, through which she learns about teamwork, losing with grace and about the joy of playing soccer whether her team wins or loses. The book concludes with a summary of facts and photos of Mia Hamm’s rise to soccer superstar.

michael phelps cover

How to Train a T Rex and win 8 Gold Medals. Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, holds the record for winning the most gold medals (8) in a single Olympics (2008).  He has won 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold, two silver and two bronze. In this book, written with Alan Abrahamson, Phelps encourages kids to work hard to achieve their dreams. He explains his training regimen using concepts children can understand. For example, six years of training are described as “as kindergartner’s whole life!” In once section, Phelps describes his training by saying, “I got so strong from training that my legs could press 300 pounds 60 times in one workout. That’s 18,000 pounds total, or nine tons! I could leg-press a Tyrannosaurus Rex and 10 velociraptors!” This is accompanied by a humorous drawing of a T-Rex with smaller dinosaurs on his back being lifted by Michael Phelps. It’s a great book to keep kids motivated to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be.