Q&A with Seabiscuit, Unbroken author Laura Hillenbrand
Kenyon has a superb swim team -- I think their men have won their division's national championship for more than 30 years running -- but I had stopped competing by the time I reached college, and have no idea if I would have been good enough to make the team. I played tennis obsessively at Kenyon, and even arranged to get a dorm room right next to a court so I could play in every spare hour, but didn't join the team. In the summer before I got sick, I bought a bike and took up cycling.
To be honest, I was always uneasy with competing at any sport, even when I was good at it. Once, when I was playing in a summer tennis league, a girl I had beaten smashed her racket, handed it to me and stormed off. That mortified me and took all of the joy out of playing. I wanted to play sports not because I wanted to defeat someone else, but because I took such pleasure in athleticism itself -- the speed or strength or agility my body could summon. Sports made me feel exquisitely alive. As I grew older, I stopped joining teams and started just playing sports for fun.
When I was 13, I had a sports moment that has always stayed with me. My riding instructor entered me in a jumping event. When I got to the show, I discovered that the fences were gigantic, probably four-feet high, higher than I had ever jumped, and my competitors were all adults. I was terrified. But when my horse and I entered the arena, I realized that I had nothing to lose, and decided to throw myself at this thing. "Throw your heart over the fence," went the old saying, "and your horse will follow after." I did just that. I think I rode really ugly, but to my amazement, we kept clearing fence after fence, and we were going very fast. People in the crowd started cheering me on and clucking to my horse as we jumped. It felt like everyone there was pulling for me. In the end, my horse refused one fence, which was my fault, but we cleared all the others, and had we cleared the one we missed, we would have won. I have never felt a deeper sense of satisfaction than I did that day; it completely changed my idea of what was possible for me. Today, when I'm facing something that frightens and intimidates me, I remember that moment. I think I'll draw on that experience for the rest of my life.
This was about
It wasn't until I made the emotional adjustment to the illness -- accepting that this wasn't going to go away overnight and I would have to learn to find happiness and make my life meaningful in spite of it -- that those dreams stopped. Since then, if I dream of sports -- which I do fairly often, mostly of swimming backstroke in meets -- I am always ill in them, pushing against exhaustion.
I miss sports every day. Even after all these years, part of me hasn't stopped thinking of myself as an athlete. I'm a great watcher of sports; all my life, I've been absolutely willing to watch any sport you put in front of me, whether it's pro football or tractor pulls. In elementary school, I used to run home when school let out so I could catch the 3:00 p.m. showing of
Little things from my athletic life stay with me. In all my years riding horses I learned to instinctively rise out of the saddle and lean forward as a horse came upon a bump in the ground, in case he jumped or stumbled. When I'm in a car, I still habitually do that when we come upon a pothole. And when my husband throws a balled-up paper towel at the trash can, I instinctively swing at it, as if I'm on a tennis court. Years ago, when I was in a good period with the illness, I got to ride a horse again, for half an hour. I was nothing like the strong rider I had once been, but my body still knew how to move in balance with the horse and to pick up cues in the horse's gestures, exactly as it once had. The body never forgets.
What is the state of your health today?
For the past year and a half, I've been slowly, slowly improving, but it's been a long and difficult haul. I'm now well enough to get around my house fairly well on good days, and sometimes go out, but there are more bad days than good. Promoting the book has been exceptionally difficult, and [it's] dragging me back down again. Putting myself at risk now is a choice I'm making with eyes open. It is tremendously important to me to bring Louie Zamperini's story, and those of the other airmen and POWs who served alongside him, to the world. I feel I owe it to these men, who opened up their histories to me. And I want so badly to define myself by something other than this all-consuming disease. These books have given me that gift.