Teenage wrestlers hurl themselves at their limits as the Iowa state championship approaches
Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland. By Mark Kreidler, 262 pp., $24.95
By Janice Harayda
Read enough books by newspaper sportswriters and you will eventually begin to question the principle of freedom of speech. It’s not that these journalists are lazy or unintelligent. But they typically write books about superstars who are so young and so focused on one sport that they have almost nothing to say. And because the athletes are in high demand, they also have little time to give to a book. The sportswriters have to stretch an inadequate number of interviews to tissue-thinness, then flesh them out with tedious rehashes of games that were far more dramatic on ESPN. To see how unedifying the result can be, you need only to read Moving the Chains, the 2006 biography of the Patriots’ Tom Brady by Charles Pierce of The Boston Globe. Any six-inch news story on recent events in Brady’s personal life might tell you more about the quarterback.
Meet Mark Kreidler, a sportswriter who makes you glad that the founders of our country wrote that Bill of Rights. The dust jacket of Four Days to Glory says he has worked for two California newspapers, but his book is far from the usual hagiographic cut-and-paste job. It’s a terrific portrait of high school wrestling in Iowa, a powerhouse in the sport, and a fascinating look at a subculture almost unknown outside the Midwest. If you think the people who bark after every touchdown at Browns games are obsessed, you should meet Iowa wrestlers.
Four Days to Glory tells the story of two high school seniors, Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere, both three-time state champions who aim to join the elite who have won a fourth title. But Kreidler has expanded his focus to include the boys’ families, coaches and teammates, so that his book is always about more than wrestling: It’s about the gut-wrenching impact of the quest on everybody involved. It’s also about the complexities of Iowa, a place where tickets to the state high school wrestling final sell out months in advance, yet nobody scalps tickets because, as one father said, “It would be unsportsmanlike to scalp at an event like this.”
As he follows Borschel and LeClere to the tournament, Kreidler avoids digressions into the less savory aspects of their sport – the steroids, the latent homoeroticism and the potential for eating disorders among athletes who must weigh in for every match. This may disappoint anyone looking for the wrestling equivalent of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Joan Ryan’s superb exposé abuses in gymnastics and figure-skating. But Four Days to Glory works beautifully on its own terms. Kreidler says that Iowa wrestlers adopt slogans such as PAIN IS TEMPORARY, PRIDE IS FOREVER. And although his young subjects may not know it yet, this book gives them another reason to feel proud.
Best line: Four Days to Glory has two great walk-offs in the endings for the book and its epilogue. They are close to perfection. Unfortunately, quoting them would be like telling you who dies at the end of the new Harry Potter novel.
Worst line: Kreidler says that Dan Gable, who won a gold medal in wrestling at the Munich Olympics in 1972, was “the most acclaimed athlete of his time.” Mark, does the name Muhammad Ali mean anything to you? How about Hank Aaron, John Havlicek, Mark Spitz or Billie Jean King? The statement about Gable is so bizarre, it has to be a mistake: Kreidler must mean that he was the “most acclaimed” in wrestling. You hope.
Recommendation? Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, remember this one when you’re looking for a gift for that sports-loving teenage boy in December.
Editor: Dave Hirshey
Published: February 2007 www.markkreidler.com
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.