Review: The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou

Yes, I watch some sports. Football (my boyfriend is a die-hard Pats fan), soccer (when it’s the World/Euro Cup), baseball (when I’m at a Jays game), hockey (I am Canadian, after all) and, lastly, the Olympics. Every four years I start going to TSN more often to read up on who’s still around from the last Olympics and what chances Canada has a winning a medal. From these habits, I would say that I’m a sports fan when it “matters”. It’s entertainment for me, and rarely do I think of what actually goes on off the ice or during training, let alone when an athlete goes home at night.

I thought that Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage might be too much of a sports book for my taste, but I was totally mistaken. ‘The Bone Cage’ is written in a way that casual fans like me, can not only understand, but can also relate to. 26 year-old swimmer, Sadie Jorgenson, is training at the University of Calgary for her first shot at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Sadie’s been a swimmer all her life, and just when her dream is finally in reach, other distractions begin to manifest themselves and threaten to compromise all that Sadie has worked for. Every other chapter, Tom Stapleton, or ‘Digger’, is training hard for the Olympics as well. It will be the third appearance for this 85-kilo wrestler, and he knows it’s probably his last shot at a medal.

Abdou is a swimmer at the master’s level herself, and it’s clear that she knows a great deal about the trials and tribulations of a Canadian athlete. What I learned right off the bat, is that it’s not as glamorous by any stretch to be a Canadian athlete as it looks during the Olympics. Sadie, still living with her parents, is a ‘carded’ athlete at the University of Calgary, meaning that she gets a cheque once a month from the university, but it’s barely enough – Sadie still needs a part time job at the gym in order to get by. When Digger qualifies for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, there are no sponsors banging on his door. Instead he spends his evenings hanging out with other wrestlers Fly and Ben, who weren’t as lucky to clinch a spot in Sydney.

I felt guilty while reading this book. I have enjoyed the Olympics many times with a patriotic intensity as I copied down schedules, taped races I would miss while I was at work, and tweeted breaking news stories about athletes most likely to win a medal. But what about before the Olympics? What about in 2001 when the summer games have just finished and the winter games are a year away? I didn’t care, and if I didn’t care as someone who fervently champions all things Canadian, then who did? It seems that Canadians are only supportive when they’re looking to be entertained. When it counts, no one’s there to donate or fundraise for these athletes. And no – it’s not exactly an easy sell when there are fundraisers for the Canadian Cancer Society, or Sick Kids, but isn’t it about time we support those people that dedicate their lives to something when we gain so much from watching it?

There’s an extremely touching and sobering moment when Lucinda, Sadie’s fomer teammate who swam at the 1996 Olympics, speaks to her about what happens during and after the Olympics. I won’t ruin it for you, but that scene is one of the reasons that I think any sport-watching Canadian should read this book. Think about the recent deaths of the ‘enforcers’ in the NHL and how it’s been said that many are terribly depressed when they retire (by choice, or because of an injury). Now imagine if you didn’t have months, or years to play that sport you loved so much and trained so hard to be a part of. Imagine it all came down to a one-minute race at the Olympics. How can you move forward from that without support?

Yikes – I’ve gotten preachy. On a more positive note, Abdou writes with ease and familiarity as she takes us through the separate, and eventually converging lives of Sadie and Digger. This novel is a fast read, and with a few end-of-chapter-cliff-hangers, this book will keep your bedside table light on well after bedtime. When I finished the book, I couldn’t help but write Angie a message on twitter about how I wished the book had about 50 more pages, and we got to chatting in an email about knowing when to say ‘the end’ and leave the rest up to the reader. This gave me the idea that it might be neat to ask Angie some questions about ‘The Bone Cage’, her writing process, and her busy life as a teacher, writer, athlete and mother. She very kindly agreed, and sent me some wonderful answers which I’ll post tomorrow so do check back!

I’ll leave you with this. When I finished ‘The Bone Cage’, I marched over to the Bay and bought myself some Olympic gear with ‘Canada’ emblazoned all over it. It’s not the solution, but it’s a start. The government needs to be doing more for these athletes, and not just the ones that make the cut for London 2012. I pledge to continue caring after the Olympics, and to share that interest and support with others.

GO TEAM CANADA.

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