Sports memoirs are rarely worth a read. 99 out of 100 don’t “go there,” don’t dig in and rip the subject apart. All too often they’re painfully long, puff pieces promoting the athlete’s platform. I can’t count how many times I’ve given up a beautiful Saturday or Sunday afternoon, slogging through robotically constructed stories that semi-mirror an athlete’s life. And 99 times out of a 100, it’s a life as seen through a sports-journalist-turned-ghostwriter’s eyes, a ghostwriter desperately trying to earn a fee and appease the athlete’s ego.
FINDING ULTRA does not fall into the “99” category. It’s an epic journey worth your time, a story you will soak up, love and appreciate the rest of your life.
FINDING ULTRA is written by Rich Roll, and, rest assured, he follows all the right rules of writing about yourself. He slices into his soul, fileting out the darkest cuts of weakness, shame and hurt, though he never languishes there. He moves you through his life at a fast clip, with the right touch of humor and, somehow, grace.
Rich, an entertainment attorney (who has built a successful business repping Hollywood screenwriters), has clearly paid attention to the best story-tellers in the biz. He launches his memoir with an emotional bang, blasting himself like cannon fodder onto the plains of athletic desperation. If you’ve ever been on the edge of absolute defeat, known your athletic life has been crushed in a single moment, then you will cry. It’ll happen on page 13 of FINDING ULTRA. Just read that far. Your throat will burn, your eyes will sting, and Rich will have captured your heart.
For swimmers, the beauty of this book is Rich’s childhood. He takes you on deck, painting details so precise you can smell the chlorine. His development as a competitive swimmer is where you’re going to get lost in the journey and have difficulty setting the book down. We’ve all experienced funny moments around the pool, and Rich paints his in vivid colors, teasing you into surprise, laugh-out-loud moments.
By the time Rich takes on his prep school athletic department, almost single-handedly creating the foundation of a great swimming program, he’s off on college recruiting trips. As expected, this part’s entertaining, and what many of us remember and romanticize years into adulthood. For Rich, however, it’s the beginning of the end, his first real taste of alcohol, leading to his ongoing struggle with addiction. Laid to waste are his swimming career at Stanford, world-class accolades in the 200 butterfly, a brief first marriage, and nearly his career in the entertainment industry.
Many writers have tackled addiction, and done it well. None ever rose from the ashes in middle-age, taking on the toughest tri-sport event in the world, the Ultraman.
The Ultraman World Championships is not for the faint of heart. It’s a “double” Iromman: 6.2 mile swim, 261.4 mile bike, 52.4 mile run. Rich holds the record for the swimming portion, but I’ll leave it there. You can read the rest of the story for yourself. In the broadest strokes, Rich does more than take-on this new challenge. He creates a new life, one filled with inspiration and personal successes you can cheer for. It’s all real, very raw and sincere. As a writer, and the subject of the story, Rich earns your time and trust and appreciation.