Book Review: Penny Heyns, An Autobiography with Gary Lemke

penny heynsI can be pretty Luddite about some “modern world” elements, but I love that Kindle technology allows me to read a swim auto-bio, Penny Heyns, An Autobiography with Gary Lemke, which is not in print in the U.S.

Penny Heyns, if you recall, is South African and a breaststroke specialist who peaked in the 1990s. Naturally, her “as told to” bio offers the typical swim fare – how Heyns got into the sport, her development, training and coaching, key race details.

The most compelling sections of her book are those involving nationality – her swim star is rising right when her home country returns to the Olympics after a 50+ year-ban for their practice of apartheid. It’s fascinating (and depressing) to read her account of how ill-prepared South Africa was upon re-entering the international competition scene, and how corrupt their system was from the get-go.

Facing sub-par training conditions and little support (financial or other) at home, it’s no surprise that a young swimmer with a promising future would opt for better training conditions abroad. For Heyns, this meant accepting a college scholarship from the University of Nebraska, then a post-grad training opportunity in Canada. Her decision to represent her native country while seeking better training conditions year-round in others, however, sparks years of nasty pressures and conflicts with the South Africa swim federation.

Heyns’ struggles with her home federation is a common, increasingly loud thread until it feels as if the main motivation behind the book was to share “her side” of events, things that were hidden from public eye, specifically how poorly she was treated by the South African swim/Olympic committees. For example, her second Olympic performance may have disappointed her countrymen, but the backstory (illness, too many mandatory publicity events while in Sydney before her events, lack of quality care for the team) left Heyns run-down.

Oddly, Heyns doesn’t mention race or politics much other than in very broad strokes of explanation (e.g. her springbok tattoo was meant to show love for country, not make a political statement) or to share positive, personal experiences, such repeat interactions with Nelson Mandela. One would think that race and politics would be unavoidable topics for a South African athlete of Heyns’ generation, but perhaps at the time of publication (2004), both issues were still much too sensitive to address.

The biggest issue I had with Penny Heyns isn’t the presence/absence of nationality commentary. It’s the non-linear format. Similar to many athletic bios, it starts off at the moment of her career, Heyns’ first Olympics (double gold in 100/200 breast). But instead of backtracking to her first swim and moving forward, the book veers around in time because chapters are based on topic (e.g. her coaches, the untimely passing of her mother, nutrition, her thoughts on doping, Henys’ professional commitments after the Atlanta Games, etc.) This makes the book a little disorienting – you can’t always identify a previously mentioned person, pinpoint a year, etc.

Despite some flaws, Penny Heyns is a worthwhile read because it shows how a young, naïve girl who just wants to swim her best to honor her country ends up at odds with her federation while her country undergoes a difficult political transition. Also, some readers may find her evolving relation to faith inspiring. To sum, Heyns broaches topics and events that are often deemed “unsavory” and thus she is to be lauded for her bravery in voice and for avoiding the easy route – the typical white-washed swim bio.

Next week: Bad Habits Fading during LCM Season?

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Book Review: Penny Heyns, An Autobiography with Gary Lemke

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