10 Olympics-Themed YA Books That Celebrate Commitment And Determination
In just a few short days the summer 2016 Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with the opening ceremony taking place on Friday, August 5. While plenty of athletes and sports fans are still just as jazzed for this year’s games as ever, there’s been a slight shadow cast over the 2016's summer Olympic games — and that’s why these YA books about the Olympics are exactly the kind of upbeat stories you and all the young adult sports fans you know need right now.
Growing up, I was never particularly athletic (see: literally not at all) but I definitely remember the allure of the Olympians who were — the gymnasts and the figure skaters in the winter, and in the summers, swimmers and runners who flew through their paces so quickly it was hard to keep track of their movement on my family's small television screen. And there’s something you just can’t help but love about the Olympic narrative — it’s one of passion and power, commitment and dedication, redemption and celebration. That’s what keeps athletes and fans alike coming back every four years, after all. No matter what challenges they may face.
Here are 10 YA books to read if you’re excited for the 2016 Olympic games. Or if you’ve gotten totally bogged down by all the negative press, and need a friendly reminder about how inspiring going for the gold really is. (P.S. We’re cheering for you, Serena!)
1. Goldfish by Nat Luurtsema
This YA novel introduces readers to Lou Brown, a young girl who, as one of the fastest swimmers in the county, is trying out for the Olympics. Confident and prepared, Lou feels like she is at the top of her game (or, her lane) — until she ranks last at her Olympic time trials. Suddenly, the girl who shaped her entire identity around being a swimmer has to discover who she is on dry land. And when you’re in high school, figuring out who you are is never easy, even without also having to deal with shattered Olympic dreams.
2. Off Balance: A Memoir by Dominique Moceanu
This memoir meets Dominique Moceanu at 14-years-old, when she was the youngest member of the gold-medal-winning 1996 US Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team — and the spotlight loved her. But behind the scenes, Moceanu was just a young teen, struggling with pressure from her family, hiding injuries from her grueling coaches, and trying to navigate the dark side of success. To top it all off, as she reaches adulthood Moceanu discovers a family secret that will change her life — and her understanding of her experiences as a globally celebrated athlete — forever.
3. Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics by John Feinstein
Who doesn’t love a good mystery now and again? From bestselling sportswriter John Feinstein comes this novel about Susan Carol, a girl who works as a teen sports reporter — when she isn’t competing as an Olympic swimmer, that is. Susan is used to reporting stories, not being the story herself; but as her fellow teen reporter Stevie can attest, once Susan hits that water all eyes are on her. But with all the media attention comes pressure from sports agents and product endorsers, and Stevie begins to wonder if he’s the only person who has Susan’s best interests at heart.
4. Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill
So sure, figure skating does not necessarily scream “summer Olympics,” but this story is filled with so many strong-female-athlete vibes I couldn’t resist. Sloane Jacobs is a figure skater — a completely stressed out one, whose poor performance at the junior nationals continues to haunt her. And then there’s Sloane Jacobs, (another one) the aggressive ice hockey player who has somehow gotten herself suspended from her hockey team. Both gals need a fresh start; so naturally, when they meet over the summer in Montreal, it’s the perfect time to trade places — Parent Trap-style. Except they’re not twins, so it’s a little more complicated.
5. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
Another nonfiction title for YAs and adults alike, The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their journey towards Olympic gold. The down-to-earth team heralded from hard working and low-income families — and went on to defeat not only their rivals from prestigious British universities, but even the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. Pulling from the team’s real-life journals and photographs, this book will take you back to the suspense of the 1936 Olympics, even though you already know the outcome.
6. The Flip Side by Shawn Johnson
In addition to being a totally normal teenager and high school sophomore, Charlie Ryland is also training to become an Olympic gymnast — a secret she keeps from everyone at her school. This is partly because Charlie is committed to her training, and she doesn’t want anything — including attention from her teachers and friends — getting in her way. But it’s high school, and the prom is coming up, so naturally a little romantic distraction might just prove too much for Charlie to resist. Will she go for the gold or follow her heart — or both? You’ll just have to read to find out.
7. Breathless by Jessica Warman
Katie Kitrell is a top student at her boarding school, popular with her peers, an Olympic-bound swimmer, and headed for the Ivy Leagues after that. From the outside, her life looks enviably perfect. Unfortunately, Katie’s life isn’t everything that it seems. Troubles at home are what drove her to her boarding school in the first place — and these same troubles might just have followed her there. As a teen, Katie has a lot of big dreams to fulfill, but they may not be big enough to keep her past from catching up with her.
8. In Lane Three, Alex Archer by Tessa Duder
Alex Archer is a 15-year-old New Zealander, a swimming champion with her heart set on competing in the Olympic games in Rome. But her rival Maggie Benton, her schoolwork, her acting, her dancing, and her sick grandmother aren’t the only obstacles that stand in the way of her dreams — she also has plenty of drama with her friends and boyfriend, including one tragic accident that threatens to throw Alex off course irreversibly. Another YA novel about the resilience, determination, and focus it takes to be one of the greatest young athletes in the world.
9. Tumbling by Caela Carter
Caela Carter’s Tumbling gives readers a front row seat for two days of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, as experienced from the perspectives of five different young gymnasts who have dedicated their lives to the sport. Grace, who struggles with living up to her own impossible expectations; her BFF Leigh who seems to have it all — but really harbors a secret that weighs on her heavily; Camille, who has lost herself and her own dreams in the expectations of others; Wilhelmina, who is on a mission of redemption; and Monica, who can’t seem to remember why she came to the Olympic trials to begin with. Tumbling is a glimpse into the lives, hopes, and fears that exist in the minds and hearts of even the most focused athletes.
10. The Flyaway Girls by Julia Lawrinson
Exploring family, friendship, and the sometimes difficult realities of growing up, all against the backdrop of the National Gymnastics Team and the Olympics, The Flyaway Girls introduces readers to Chelsea and Telia — equal parts friends and rivals, one has unrelenting work ethic while the other boasts natural talent, and both want an opportunity to compete for Olympic gold. But as Chelsea begins to discover, there is more to life than gymnastics, and this discovery will force her to decide if she’s willing to give up everything else to achieve her singular dream.