Olympic athletes who put their faith first
Four top competitors – including skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace, who races Thursday in Vancouver – talk about drawing on their Christian faith in sport.
Just months ahead of the 2006 Winter Games, skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace was flying face-first at more than 80 m.p.h. toward Olympic gold. Then a bobsled with a rookie brakeman crashed into her at the end of a training run, shattering her dreams.Skip to next paragraph
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"I was first in the world, everyone was looking at me to win gold, and I had my hopes set on that," says Ms. Pikus-Pace, a devout Mormon who found strength in her faith. "People would ask, 'Aren't you angry? Don't you wish they pulled the brakes?' I never felt that way, and I know it's because of the comfort that comes with the beliefs that I have. It's my life; that's where my strength comes from."
Now, she's back, World Championship gold in her pocket, and ready to contend (tonight at 7 p.m. EST) in Vancouver, British Columbia. But to Pikus-Pace, one's demeanor and daily striving are as important as the results on a scoreboard.
"For me, the only thing that keeps me going is ... striving to do my heavenly Father's will," says Pikus-Pace, who lives with her husband and 2-year-old daughter in Orem, Utah. "That lightens my burden so it's not all about me. It's about trying to be a good example to those around me and ... showing an example that Christ would have shown."
Pikus-Pace may be an anomaly, but she's not alone. In a testament to the diverse religions represented at the Winter Games, Vancouver's multifaith center provides "spiritual services" to adherents of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.
In recent years, Jewish athletes, such as Michael Phelps's 2008 gold-medal relay teammate Jason Lezak, have used their fame to promote Jewish causes. Muslim Olympians have stood up for their religious beliefs in debates over clothing and fasting, even at the price of sacrificing their athletic goals. It's an issue that is likely to come into sharper focus at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which will coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
After Beijing was harshly criticized for banning foreign chaplains from serving in its understaffed multifaith center at the 2008 Olympics, Vancouver is striving to support the spiritual needs of athletes. Required by the International Olympic Committee, the center highlights an often-hidden dimension of athletes.
But in America, where religion is increasingly embraced in the public sphere, more than a few Christian athletes are crediting God on their blogs and posting Bible verses on their websites. For them, sport is a demanding but exhilarating proving ground for practicing what they preach.
From 30th place to bronze medal
In Dave Johnson's case, it was dramatic. The decathlete made famous by Reebok's "Dan and Dave" commercials, Johnson was gunning for gold in the 1992 Barcelona Games.
But on the first day of competition, he broke a bone in his foot. Devastated, he found himself in 30th place as the second day began. Standing in front of the pole vault, his fancy Reebok shoes painfully tight on his swollen foot, he resolved to put down the pole and quit.
But something stopped him. His friends, both in Barcelona and back home, had reminded him that he was there not for himself, not for a world record or a medal, but for something greater – a message that resonated with his sense of purpose.