Book review: Body Lengths, by Leisel Jones

Rene Poulos, Psychologist & Career Development Specialist at Crossing the Line takes a look at Body Lengths by Leisel Jones – an intimate memoir of her pursuit for the ultimate prize.

For sport lovers, Leisel Jones needs no introduction. Rightly regarded as one of the greatest breaststrokers ever, at the age of fifteen she won two silver medals at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. She went on to win gold at Athens and Beijing, and at London 2012 became the first Australian swimmer to compete at four Olympics. Yet despite being one of Australia’s most internationally recognised sportspeople, it seems that for a long time, she has been a secret remaining to be discovered.

In her book Body Lengths, Jones bravely describes life in the spotlight, revealing the relentless pressure she was subjected to from coaches, the media and from herself. Despite the highs of her swimming career she suffered crippling depression and at one time planned to take her own life. In London, ridiculed in the media for her weight and appalled by the culture in the Australian swim team, she nevertheless managed herself with great composure and integrity.

On her personal odyssey, Leisel Jones sought a destination and got a journey. Emerging from her place of darkness with a renewed sense of self, she has finally learnt how to be comfortable in her own skin and live with confidence and optimism. In a recent episode of Channel Ten’s The Project, Jones spoke candidly about the depression she suffered after winning gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

She said she wanted to share her tale as “a positive story for other people, so that they could look at it and go ‘you know what? I’m not alone in this’.”

In her upfront interview she revealed that she wanted to pull no punches by saying “I wanted to go into full depth because I wanted people to realise that it can be really dark. I wanted people to feel like they weren’t alone, that sports people can go through these things as well and can still be going through a really hard time”.

She added “it is pretty chilling and I think at the time you just get so caught up in it’s almost like you’re in a black cloud… it’s almost like it just consumes you and you’re just stuck in this whole environment where you’re just stuck in your head and you can’t get out of it.”

Jones was also recently profiled in the Good Weekend magazine. In that article, she recalls lying in bed after winning the gold medal and thinking, “You’ve won the gold! Achieved your dream! This is the part where you’re ecstatic. You should be over the moon!”

She says that after the win she experienced unexpected feelings, “because even as a gold medalist, you still have to get up in the morning. You still have to eat your Weet-Bix and brush your teeth. Life goes on,” she said.

“It was stupid to think all that would change. Yet somehow, I now realise, I thought things would be different.”

Body Lengths will no doubt have everyone talking. Brave and controversial, Jones raises the big questions about elite sport. With her often brutal portrayal of the swimming community, relationships, family, friendships, mental illness, rivalry and even nation Leisel forces us to look in the mirror. With her powerfully consistent focus on the often painful and confronting details of her personal and swimming lives, Jones forces us to think not only about the world of elite sport, but more importantly to focus on the wider issues around developing the capacity to be better, stronger and wiser human beings.

Written in a style that is provocative and confronting, the book brings discussions around elite sport to the surface in ways which at the same time pose the hard questions about everyday life and more importantly, the emotional force of competition, self-doubt, pressure, identity and how we deal with adversity. Uncompromising and brutally courageous in talking about the many unspoken issues that blemish her sport, Jones shares her many perspectives and experiences of an incredible career. While these are separately presented throughout the book, the transitions are seamless allowing them to simultaneously be “separately together” in a larger and often terrifying dynamic. Thanks to the tremendous heart Jones brings to the book you’ll feel that you know her as you follow the twists and turns in her life. For those readers appreciating the nuances of elite sporting competition, pressure and pain, Jones manages to reconcile all three with humour, hope and integrity. With extraordinary depth and her own dominant presence, Body Lengths far transcends the boundaries of sport. It is the warm, earthly sounds of the human heart – elements that so often set us apart, but occasionally bring us together.

Gripping, confronting and important, Body Lengths is a masterfully told story that will leave you with a disturbing new look at elite sport and at life. If you are not afraid of dark places – of seeing the flaws that exist in us all – you won’t be able to put the book down.

And you will be better and richer for the experience.

Get the book here.