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Nature Or Nurture? Two Books On What it Takes to Win

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein might sound like a book about competitors like Usain Bolt and Serena Williams — but a closer read reveals that what Epstein has learned about extreme fitness can tell you a lot about your own athletic prowess.


That’s because Epstein goes beyond the idea of genetic blessing and examines what kinds of training — physical and mental — support the natural gifts some athletes gain before birth. In other words, he asks, how do nature and nurture combine to create athletes so heart-stoppingly excellent that they seem like extraterrestrials?

Epstein finds answers in places you might expect, like softball fields and golf courses, but he also learns from chess tournaments, virtuoso violinists and Antarctic field experiments.

But what I found most scintillating in this deeply researched and engagingly written book was how many different forms of “extraordinary” there are on this earth.

We all know big names like Phelps, Williams, Hamm, Jordan and others, but we shouldn’t forget that athletic excellence runs the gamut from tiny gymnastic powerhouse females to the 7’5″ Yao Ming of basketball to the stringbean bodies of ultrarunners to the heft of powerlifters. Grace, power, agility, speed — all of these and more exist in different combinations, and Title IX allowed more of us to celebrate that.


Epstein’s book called up a favorite novel for me, one of those novels that many reviewers thought was imperfect — yet one that has stayed with me: Gold by Chris Cleave. Two British friends, cyclists Kate and Zoe, are gearing up for the 2012 London Olympics. Kate has the “nature” in that her physique and coordination are perfect for her sport, while Zoe has the “nurture” — in her case, a fierce will to win that has kept her at the top her game despite her greater struggles with endurance and coordination.

Cleave cleverly makes the genetically gifted athlete, Kate, the character who also faces a genetic tragedy: Her daughter Sophie is suffering a relapse of the leukemia that nearly killed her a few years prior. Which woman will exploit the other’s weakness? Will friendship eclipse gamesmanship? Does wanting to win mean that you deserve to win? These are only a few of the questions brought up in this novel, which may have some structural wobbles, but never wavers on heart.


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