Q&A with Seabiscuit, Unbroken author Laura Hillenbrand
Laura Hillenbrand is the author of both 'Seabiscuit' and 'Unbroken'
She has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome since March 1987
Hillenbrand's illness helps her better appreciate how wondrous athletes are
Laura Hillenbrand loves sports. Her debut book, 'Seabiscuit,' chronicled the career of the storied racehorse, and her second book, '"Unbroken," focuses on the harrowing journey of Olympic sprinter and P.O.W. Louis Zamperini. Despite her love, Hillenbrand suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, which limits her physical activity. Hillenbrand sits down with SI.com to discuss the impact of sports on her life, horse racing and her illness.
SI.com: You were a competitive swimmer, you rode horses, you played tennis. Which were you most accomplished at, and at what level? (I believe Kenyon had -- perhaps still has -- a strong swimming program; so you were probably quite good.)
Laura Hillenbrand: I was always a sports-crazy kid, and did everything from soccer (terrible at it) to tennis to showing horses to a crazed melee called "gym hockey," which I adored even though it left me bruised from head to toe. I swam competitively from age 7, in summer and sometimes winter leagues, eventually specializing in 100-, 200-meter backstroke and butterfly, and some individual medley. These were just kid's leagues, but I did pretty well, especially as I got older, once going unbeaten for a season. But swimming didn't engage me in the way other sports did. My mother wanted me to be on the team when I was a kid, but in the middle of high school, I hung it up.
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.
SI.com: To what extent did those sports define you as a young person? Did you derive a significant portion of your personality and self-worth from competition, as many young athletes do?
Hillenbrand: Competition didn't shape me, but playing the sports themselves did. I was a socially awkward and troubled kid, and I didn't like myself much. But when I was playing a sport, I felt liberated and elevated. To master a serve so it just kissed the corner of the service box, or to achieve communion with a 1,000-pound animal who would happily carry me over a fence because I asked her to, these things made me feel powerful and capable in a way that nothing else in my life did.
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.
SI.com: Why write about sports now? I know you have said that Seabiscuit grew from your love of horses and riding, and even from your memory of a children's book about Seabiscuit. Unbroken makes it two books where the central character is an athlete. Is there a way to summarize why you have taken this path?
Hillenbrand: I'm drawn to subjects who struggle against adversity, and struggling against adversity is what defines an athlete. To succeed, an athlete must transcend the boundaries of the body and the mind, pushing through pain and exhaustion, doubt and fear and mental fatigue, extending his or her body to its structural limits. I'm fascinated by the way in which sports draw out the essentials of character: perseverance, resilience, tenacity, daring. One thing that made Louie Zamperini so special a subject was the way in which all of the attributes he called upon to be a great runner were the same attributes he called upon to survive in combat, as a castaway on a life raft and as a prisoner of war.
SI.com: In that same vein, you said in a 2001 interview: "That's the story of the individuals I wrote about: They were successful in overcoming what they had to deal with. Stepping out of my body and into their lives -- they were vigorous men, who lived wild eventful lives that swung in gigantic parabolas -- was an escape for me.''
This was about Seabiscuit, but it could have been about Louis Zamperini, too. It seems like the same emotions might hold now, but is the work not only an escape, but also an athletic competition of sorts for you, as well?
Hillenbrand: I love to write about individuals who lived lives full of motion, because [chronic fatigue syndrome] leaves me trapped in stillness. Creating a book is a very intense process for me; as I conduct research, or write, I imagine and reimagine the events, trying to feel the experience with my subjects. I try to gather every possible detail, so I can see and feel each event as vividly as possible. In my mind, I'm with my subjects, whether it is aboard Seabiscuit's back as he puts away War Admiral, or aboard a raft lost in the Pacific as a Japanese bomber strafes it with bullets and sharks circle alongside. Physically, I can't escape this illness, or even this house, but when I'm writing, I'm not here; I am in another place and time, in another body, living through someone else. The thing I yearn for the most in my life is to have a healthy body again, so I especially enjoy writing about supreme athletic moments.
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