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Bookshelf provides inspiration and relaxation

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Annabel Vernon | 10:48 UK time, Thursday, 26 November 2009

Apologies for my absence from this blog for the last couple of months. I took a long holiday after the World Championships and travelled around Turkey and the Caucasus mountains, finishing with a week in St Petersburg, where one of my brothers lives.

It's a crazy city and I was quite relieved to leave relatively unscathed, with merely a collection of Russian words and a deep appreciation for vodka!

Since then, it's been pretty hectic with a trip over the pond to Massachusetts for the world's biggest regatta, the Head of the Charles.

A group of fellow internationals got together and organised an eight, so Anna Bebington (now Watkins after her recent wedding) and myself ended up joining forces with two Dutch girls, three Yanks, a Kiwi and a Canadian to take the title in Championships Women's Eights event.

It was a fantastic event and a very memorable experience. That is one of the best things about sport - being able to keep the competition and the hate out on the water, and occasionally come together to just enjoy racing and celebrate rowing.

I will attempt to blog a bit more regularly from now on, but in my first one back I don't have anything earth-shattering to report so I thought I'd talk a bit about the books that have kept me going through training and racing.

Annabel Vernon (fourth from right) and Anna Watkins (behind her) take part in the Head of the Charles

Annabel Vernon (fourth from right) and Anna Watkins (behind her) take part in the Head of the Charles

I'm working my way through the Russian classics at the moment after experiencing St Petersburg but, for a bit of light relief, a friend lent me the climber Chris Bonington's autobiography, which is fantastic.

As a sportswoman myself, it's always fascinating to learn about other sports, to try to understand where the thrill lies, where the challenges are, and what creates the highs and lows. The best part of this book is that Bonington is very descriptive of why he climbs - the balance between the skill of physically climbing the rock, and the danger aspect of hanging on by his fingernails over a drop of three thousand feet in the Alps.

It made me think a bit more about the books that you see athletes reading on the bus on the way to regattas, or lying on the bed between training sessions, or at the back of the boathouse hours before a big race.

The classic athletes' text would be The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's short story about a fisherman who catches a giant marlin, only for it to be virtually devoured by sharks before he gets it back to shore.

As I interpreted it, the moral is therefore that all achievements are transitory, and you should never base your whole life upon one thing because it could be you'll have nothing physical to show for it. The struggle is where the nobility lies.

Apart from this one, a lot of athletes will read sporting biographies. I suppose this is partly as a learning tool - learning how others have stayed motivated, improved, driven themselves and coped with highs and lows. However, in my experience sporting biographies are little more than a glorified list of achievements.

One of the best ones I've read would be Martin Cross's book, Olympic Obsession. I may be biased as I know Martin (the Guardian's rowing correspondent and BBC Radio 5 live reporter) well, but as a sports book it's fascinatingly detailed on the all the behind-the-scenes gossip and politics of Olympic sport, as well as the 'dark side' of the experience with an honest account of his own struggle with depression. This is a must-read for all aspiring Olympians - rowers and non-rowers.

When we go away on training camp, I choose books that are escapist. I don't want to be doing sport and reading about it as well. One of my best choices was War and Peace - it was a good friend through the long, dark days of the winter of 2008, and it meant that I could return from hard hours in the gym or on the river and utterly lose myself in stories of Russian court society, or the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars.

In Beijing I ended up in the reverse situation - with a book so bad it just made me angry. It was a historical biography but was so badly researched, analysed and written that it served an excellent purpose of taking my mind off my Olympic regatta by giving me book rage instead!

I'd be interested to know what you think of sports writing. I don't just mean biographies, but also abstracts such as Simon Barnes' The Meaning of Sport or Steve Redgrave's You can Win at Life.

Are they read by people desperately searching for an insight or a shortcut that simply isn't there? I guess what I'm driving at is the question of whether sport is as interesting to read about as many people make out. Isn't the thrill all in the experiencing and doing?


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Annabel,

    nice blog. It was interesting to read about your choice of books for escaping from training and competing. I'm surprised that you describe 'The old man and the sea' as a "classic athletes' text", but I can see that the nature of the story means it can be interpreted in many ways.

    My favourite piece of sports writing is Lance Armstrong's 'It's not about the bike', although, as the title suggests, the book doesn't go into too much detail about the sporting side of Armstrong's story. However, the emotional power of the book and the determination of the man make it a worthy read, in my opinion.

  • Comment number 2.

    My favourite sports novel is 'Angry White Pyjamas' by Robert Twigger, about his experiences while on the Tokyo Riot Police aikido course. A real insight into the martial arts mentality.


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