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.

Jim Young/Reuters
Noelle Pikus-Pace of the U.S. starts during a practice run in the women's skeleton event at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics on Wednesday.

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.

"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.

"I honestly believed that it was my calling to allow Christ to be seen through my performance," says Johnson, and "it was my daily calling to bear the cross for him so that he could be seen through me."

At that moment, the pole vault looming high before him, he ran full-tilt toward it. He not only cleared the bar, but went on to set the world record for the most points in second-day events – a record that still stands. And he won bronze.

"I was bronze, but it was gold," says Johnson. "In the Lord's eyes, there are some amazing golden things that the world just doesn't ever see."

Dodging gang bullets

While Pikus-Pace and Johnson have demonstrated their faith on the Olympic stage, other athletes have shone their light outside the Games.

Take Jesse Beckom, a hulking bobsledder from Chicago's South Side. Caught in a gang crossfire when he returned from college one fall, he put his sprinting ability to a much more important test as bullets whizzed through the leaves on either side of his head. (He later realized there were no leaves; the sound was from the proximity of the bullets.) When he tripped just before jumping a fence, a bullet hit the fence right where his head would have been.

To Beckom, who often talks with middle-schoolers about healthy lifestyles, faith, and his road to bobsledding, the fact that he survived that situation and others – when some friends haven't – is proof to him that the purpose of his life is to set a Christian example.

"God has ... saved my life to try to help kinda get that message out," says Beckom, a member of the US bobsled team who didn't make the Olympic squad. "Because for all practical purposes, maybe I shouldn't be here right now."

A jarring wake-up call

Just as there may not be any atheists in foxholes, there may not be any in bobsledding, either – a sport where speeds can approach 100 m.p.h.

Olympian Brock Kreitzburg won't be there this time to pull five Gs flying perpendicular to the ground around banked turns, huddled so close to his teammate that he can feel him inhale and exhale despite the shuddering racket outside. For years, that was his place – back seat in the USA-1 sled, which was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2007.

Then, in a matter of months last season, he lost his ability to walk, his team stipend, and his job when he underwent two major hip surgeries and The Home Depot cut its Olympic employment program. For the seminary graduate, it was a wake-up call.

"It stripped everything away that was important to me: bobsledding, money, my spot on the national team," says Mr. Kreitzburg. "All I have is Him. So I've learned to completely trust Him, and trust His plan. The most difficult prayer, but the most sincere prayer I pray, is, 'Let Your will be done,' because mine usually crashes and burns."

After the type of surgery Kreitzburg had in November 2008, it's normal to start running six months later; he started running at 10-1/2 weeks. By June, he was back on the national team. In November, he competed in a World Cup – finishing just 12/100ths of a second behind USA-1.

Though ultimately he did not make the 2010 Olympic team, the past year has given him a new appreciation for a different kind of reward.

"I've come to a point where I'm grateful for all that's happened this past year," says Kreitzburg. "I've experienced a lot and none of it compares with my relationship with the Lord – the joy and happiness and peace that I've found in Him."

Follow Christa from early in the morning till late at night on Twitter. Christa trained full time for the Olympics as a cross-country skier between 1997 and 2002.

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