Some four athletes, including gold-medal gymnast Simone Biles, not only train hard, but trust in prayer to center them throughout the games.
Simone Biles of Team USA looks on during Artistic Gymnastics training session at Rio Olympic Arena on August 4, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Laurence Griffiths | Getty Images
Athletes inspire millions of people around the world, yet the focus of that inspiration is almost always on their bodies, not their hearts and minds. Olympians are physically powerful, to be sure. But what about the power that radiates from within? The power that comes from knowing something bigger than themselves exists? For some of the athletes competing in the Olympics at Rio, spirituality comforts and empowers them as they perform before a global audience.
Take U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. According to a recent interview with U.S. Weekly, the gold medalist reportedly keeps a rosary her mother gave to her close to her always—not just before a competition. She also takes a statue of St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes, with her when she travels.
“My mom, Nellie, got me a rosary at church. I don’t use it to pray before a competition,” Biles told U.S. Weekly “I’ll just pray normally to myself, but I have it there in case.”
According to the Catholic News Service, Biles is a parishioner at St. James Catholic Church in Spring, Texas. The only day she doesn’t practice gymnastics is Sunday, so she can go to Mass with her grandparents, who adopted Biles when she was little.
Olympic diver David Boudia also identifies as a Christian athlete, but he wasn’t always a believer. He found Christ in 2010.
“In 2008, diving was my god. It was a forced competition,” he told Beliefnet. “(Now) It’s more about what I’m doing to share my purpose but not forcing it on people. God is providing this platform so He can reveal Himself.”
Boudia did a TODAY show interview where he spoke about his new book, young daughter, and the origins of his faith:
Allyson Felix, a gold medalist who runs track & field for the U.S. team, told Beyond Ultimate in a 2012 interview that she relies on her faith to help her be a stronger person.
“I’m currently a work in progress and like anyone else I face struggles every day,” she said. “My goal is to be more Christ-like each and every day and that is not an easy task … I know that I’m trying to be something different from [other Olympic runners] and after I run I hope that people can distinguish [my] character in the way I present myself.”
Watch this Liberty Mutual video featuring Felix as she talks about her visit to Jerusalem and Lebanon, as well as how running makes her feel “peaceful” and “graceful,” almost like a conduit of her faith.
Kevin Durant, who plays basketball for Team USA, said that faith has been a powerful, though recent, addition to his life. The star was baptized by Pastor Carl Lentz at Hillsong New York City in 2013.
At a Hillsong service, Kevin said, “When I came out of the water, I just felt different. Basketball is so important to me and I carry that emotion with me all of the time and before that I would be so mad at the smallest things. My coaches, my teammates, my fans. After that, I was just so positive.”
Here’s an in-depth LifeChurch.tv interview with Kevin Durant and Pastor Carl Lentz about spirituality in sport:
According to the Religion News Service, the 554 athletes who belong to Team USA represent a diverse religious group, with those who identify as Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim in the mix. For additional examples of Christian Team USA athletes, read Christian Post’s round-up.
We love that these athletes are not afraid to share such an integral part of their lives with the world. They’re not just performing their best for themselves; they’re performing their best with a higher purpose in mind, seeing their athletic calling as a spiritual vocation.
As Boudia told NBC, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to compete in the Olympics if it weren’t for God.
“Going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not the result of this competition just gave me peace,” he said. “And it let me enjoy the contest. God’s given us a cool opportunity, and I’m glad I could come away with an Olympic silver medal.”
But does faith actually give them an edge in the competition? That’s a question that the Religion News Service asked. One source, Chad Bonham, author of the book Glory of the Games: Biblical Insights From the World’s Greatest Athletes, told RNS that it very well may.
“If there is an advantage these guys would tell you it gives them, it is in dealing with the ups and downs of training and injury, of winning and losing,” he said. “Winning can be a drug, an upper, and losing is a downer, so it helps give them an edge in dealing with the glory they receive from winning and the awful feeling of losing. There is a certain balance in those people in that they understand what they are doing and what is happening to them.”
That desire to make the most of our lives and understand our spirit isn’t exclusive to Olympic athletes, of course. It’s a normal human impulse and one that leads many people to religion in the first place. Faith brings meaning to the pool, to the track, and to the very lives we lead.
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