The 2016 Summer Olympic Games are soon to take over our TV sets and free time for two weeks of extraordinary competition, but the athletics aren’t the only thing to look forward to. As athletes from around the world fight to achieve the goal of a lifetime, we’ll get to learn more about their incredible journeys to Rio de Janeiro. No Olympic broadcast is complete without at least one story that brings tears to your eyes, after all, no matter how good you are at reining them in.
While there are plenty of motivating stories to eagerly anticipate in the weeks that come, there are words of wisdom from Olympians past as well. Over the decades, numerous athletes have turned their triumphs and disappointments at sports’ biggest international competition into source material for inspiring memoirs. Their stories showcase everything from the unbelievable odds they managed to overcome to the courage it took to make important statements with the eyes of the world watching.
Rio is sure to bring us many more memorable moments, but there are plenty of Olympians with tales worth revisiting. Below are 15 medal-worthy memoirs from Olympic athletes of past Summer Games to get you pumped for Rio.
1. Silent Gesture by Tommie Smith, David Steele
You might not recognize the name Tommie Smith, but you’ve likely seen the iconic image of his 1968 gold medal moment: Standing on the podium that day, he and fellow American runner John Carlos raised black-gloved fists while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. In Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, the Olympian opens up about his life and the powerful message he hoped to convey.
2. Age Is Just a Number by Dara Torres, Elizabeth Weil
Most people never win any Olympic medal, let alone one at age 41 after having already retired. In Age Is Just a Number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Stage in Your Life, Dara Torres discusses how she did just that. She offers up motivation by serving as a reminder that nothing is impossible.
3. On the Line by Serena Williams, Daniel Paisner
Serena Williams is set to defend her Olympic gold medals in both singles and doubles in Rio, a long way from the Compton, California, courts where she learned to play. Her climb, as detailed in her book, On the Line, has been a steep one, and it is as inspiring as the legendary athlete herself.
4. Breaking the Surface by Greg Louganis, Eric Marcus
Diagnosed as HIV positive only six months before the 1988 Olympics, Greg Louganis still went on to win two medals in Seoul, adding to the three he had won at previous Games. In Breaking the Surface, he bravely opens up about his illness, along his sexual orientation, substance abuse, and other extremely personal but not uncommon struggles.
5. Landing on My Feet by Kerri Strug, John Lopez
One particular moment at the 1996 Summer Olympics stood out: the sacrifice Kerri Strug made in vaulting while injured to help her teammates win the United States’ first-ever team gymnastics gold. Her book, Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams, gives readers a look at her life beyond just that fateful competition. Throughout, she shares her impressive strength and tenacity.
6. Jesse by Jesse Owens, Paul Neimark
Jesse Owens’ performance at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin was an exceptional victory during a dark time; by dominating in multiple track and field events, he offered stark evidence that disproved Hitler’s theories of Aryan superiority. His memoir, Jesse: The Man Who Outran Hitler, tells the extraordinary story while revealing much about the renowned athlete himself.
7. Off Balance by Dominque Moceanu, Teri Williams
Gymnastics is a central part of Olympic gold medalist Dominque Moceanu’s history, but it isn’t the only fascinating aspect. In Off Balance: A Memoir, she delves into her family life, including her complicated relationship with her parents and a secret they kept from her for years. Moceanu also shares a darker side to the sport, beyond the leotards and spotlight.
8. A Kind of Grace by Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Sonja Steptoe
Growing up in a rough area made Jackie Joyner-Kersee an unlikely champion, but she overcame the odds to become affectionately known as “Superwoman.” A Kind of Grace: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Female Athlete is a moving account of her life and the many barriers she broke through on her way to the top.
9. In the Water They Can’t See You Cry by Amanda Beard, Rebecca Paley
Olympic gold medalist Amanda Beard is candid about her struggles with clinical depression in her memoir, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry. Thrust into the spotlight at age 14, she had a difficult time coping with her pain and the pressure of competitive swimming. Her story takes an inspirational turn, though, as she shares new perspective that has helped her find peace.
10. Chris Hoy by Chris Hoy
Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy revisits his tale of a second chance in Chris Hoy: The Autobiography. He discusses how he successfully transitioned to a new event after his preferred discipline was dropped from the Olympics. The book also touches on sports psychology, including overcoming self-doubt.
11. Misty by Misty May-Treanor, Jill Lieber Steeg
Misty May-Treanor opens up about her path to the top of the Olympic podium (multiple times) in Misty: My Journey Through Volleyball and Life. Although she earned recognition as one of the greatest beach volleyball players of all time, her climb wasn’t easy. With its personal look at her background, Misty is intimate and inspiring.
12. My Life by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, William Novak
Magic Johnson: My Life explores the famous basketball player’s ups and downs — including his retirement in 1991 after contracting HIV — from his perspective. Fortunately, his career wasn’t over. Johnson went on to become a gold medalist at the 1992 Olympics as part of the fabled “Dream Team,” and his successes and struggles form a compelling narrative.
13. It’s Not About the Bra by Brandi Chastain, Gloria Auerbach
Brandi Chastain may be best-known for whipping off her jersey after scoring the game-winning goal in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final, but she also has three Olympic medals to her name, two of which are gold. She uses stories from her career to discuss youth sports in her book It’s Not About the Bra: Play Hard, Play Fair, and Put the Fun Back into Competitive Sports. Although not necessarily a traditional memoir, her book contains valuable insight on sports and interesting anecdotes about Chastain’s equally impressive teammates.
14. Catch a Star by Tamika Catchings, Ken Petersen
A three-time Olympic gold medalist, Tamika Catchings is well-versed in her book’s subject matter. Catch a Star: Shining Through Adversity to Become a Champion shares the many obstacles she faced on the way to becoming one of women’s basketball’s best, including hearing loss, separation from her family, and serious injuries. Catchings motivates readers to believe in their own potential and pay it forward.
15. No Limits by Michael Phelps, Alan Abrahamson
There’s no ignoring Michael Phelps when you talk about Olympic legends. The swimmer has won more medals — and more gold ones — than any other athlete in the history of the Games. In No Limits: The Will to Succeed, he reveals his personal struggles and his keys to success.