I can’t remember not being an athlete. From the time that I could walk, I participated in sports and extracurricular activities. During my earliest years of life, I danced. I did gymnastics for several more years, though I wasn’t good at it. (I was too tall and flimsy to control my body.) By the time I was 11, I started racing competitively, and that’s where I found my niche. I was fast and strong with nearly a perfect hurdle technique. I worked hard. I won often. I grew confident.
As I reflect on those small wins in life, I think about the women Olympians I looked up to over the years … gymnasts like Dominique Dawes and Mary Lou Retton. (As a young girl, I actually met Mary Lou at a “Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Winning Without Drugs” event.) I looked up to track stars like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the late Florence Griffith-Joyner (“Flo Jo”), and of course the star hurdler, Gail Devers.
These women athletes are God’s image bearers who display his confidence and character. They remind us with their physical ability and strength that our bodies are good. With their performances, they sacrifice not only for personal honor, the team, or our country, but by disciplining their bodies, they honor their creator who is the Lord.
As they perform with neatly placed hair and perfect makeup (I never did that), they celebrate God’s beauty in the masterful creation that is the human body. They acknowledge that God does care about our bodies and participating in sports is one way we can celebrate its beauty.
Our bodies are created to worship. With so many negative images bombarding our young women today (see the video clip below), it is important that we raise our voices to share a different message. Young girls need to know that they are not simply a consequence of what they wear, their body size, what they eat, or how men (or other women) view them. The airbrushed images in magazines and commercials should not define them.
I am calling now for a release … freedom … a proclamation that young girls everywhere have a choice to take on positive images. I am not implying that we encourage more self-help or self-esteem building techniques. I am rather stating that we should encourage girls to value the mind, body, and soul, realizing that they are not separate entities from each other.
By the time I entered college, I was meditating on passages like the Apostle Paul calling all Christians to approach life as a runner who desires to win a prize. In order to win, Paul says we must all go into strict training (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Strict physical training requires countless hours of focus, dedication, and hard work. It requires personal sacrifice and a reordering of priorities if you want to win. With that understanding, this passage provides a simple truth: focusing to develop physical discipline (particularly early in one’s life) can correlate to the development of spiritual discipline. Disciplining ourselves in mind, body, and spirit is as an act of holistic worship toward God since we are called to do everything as unto the Lord.
God’s image bearers should reflect his character and the reality that his creation is indeed good. God’s image bearers should reflect his desire for creativity and honor and excellence. Encourage girls to honor God with their bodies for “the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13b, NIV).
We can honor God through physical conditioning; therefore, in the words of that great motivator Edna Mode from The Incredibles, “Go! Fight! Win!” Let the girls run, jump, spike, throw, leap. Let them sweat, burn, and sacrifice. Let them honor God with their bodies. Let them play sports.
GIVING GLORY TO GOD FOR GOLD: Olympic gymnastics champion Gabrielle Douglas says her faith helps her manage the pressure of competing on a world stage. (Photo: Brian Peterson/ Newscom)
“Let all that I am praise the LORD; may I never forget the good things he does for me.” These are the first words 16-year-old gymnast Gabrielle Douglas tweeted after she won the all around gold medal at the London Olympics yesterday. On the stadium floor, Douglas also told a reporter that “the glory goes up to Him, and the blessings fall down on me.”
In a first-person ESPN article published after her win, she said she was “in some pain from a tweaked muscle” when she arrived in London and was “feeling a little down,” but her coach Liang Chow advised her to ignore the pain. “He got me refocused, and, of course, he was right. When I got to the competition and all the nerves kicked in, I didn’t feel a thing,” said Douglas.
“Tonight, I didn’t think about avoiding mistakes — that’s what gets you into trouble,” Douglas wrote in her ESPN essay. “Instead, I just thought about going out there and representing Team USA, my coaches, my family and myself as best as I could. I just wanted to enjoy the moment.”
It took Douglas and her sisters two years to convince their mother that the then 14 year old should be allowed to move from their home in Virginia Beach to train with Chow in Iowa. In an inspirational video about what it takes to raise an Olympian, Douglas’ mother, Natalie Hawkins, said Douglas had been a child who would never leave her side, and during a 2011 family visit, Douglas was so homesick that she asked to come home. Her mother told her, “Life is not easy. You have to fight and just refuse to quit.” Now Hawkins says it was worth the sacrifices to see her daughter achieve her dream.
Douglas is the first African-American to win gold in the all-around competition, a fact that had former Olympian Dominique Dawes in tears as she reported on its significance for Fox Sports. Dawes was part of the 1996 “Magnificient Seven” gymnastics team that won the first U.S. women’s team gold. (This year’s “Fab Five” that included Douglas also took the team gold.) She said her tears were not only for Douglas and her family, but for the historical moment and what it would do to inspire young African Americans. Asked what advice she would give the young champion, Dawes said, “Keep God number one in your life. … Keep him first and foremost and only be guided by him.”
As Douglas manages what some are calling a meteoric rise to prominence, she’ll have to deal not only with accolades but with criticism. Already there has been criticism of the champion’s hair care. Ingrid Banks, Associate Professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Loop-21 that this criticism “has deep historical roots dating back to the late nineteenth century [when] black people equated ‘proper grooming’ standards as a weapon in the fight against segregation.” Banks says the focus on Douglas’ hair “illustrates, in a painful manner, how black people continue to hold on to outdated ideas that are no less problematic today as they were in the past.”
Never mind that, though. Gabby “woke up in London on Thursday morning to the beat of raindrops on the roof, and she knew it was going to be a great day,” Phil Taylor wrote at Sports Illustrated. “‘My mom always told me that rain was God’s manifestation of something really special about to happen,’ she said. She was right, because by the time Douglas, the pint-size, 16-year-old gymnast, closed her eyes and fell asleep Thursday night — if she ever did — she was the Olympic gold medalist in the all-around competition, which will only change the rest of her life.”
Congratulations, Gabby Douglas! You’ve done us all proud.
Ever since the news media got wind of the fact that 29-year-old U.S. Olympic team hurdler Lolo Jones is a virgin who doesn’t plan to have sex until she gets married, we’ve been eager to find out more about other Olympians of color who have unique stories of faith and perseverance. Now Colorlines has helped us along by introducing us to some other U.S. athletes who are heading to London for the games July 27-August 12. So, we’re spring-boarding off their post with a roundup of seven Olympians we’ll be watching in London.
Let’s start with Jones, who didn’t make Colorlines list. Although she placed third at the U.S. Olympic trials last month and will compete in London, the pressure from her public declaration may have contributed to a less than stellar performance, The Los Angeles Times reported. Although “She could have tried to shrug off her obviously slow start and labored effort during the middle of the race … she turned the occasion into a public self-flaying, though it’s unclear if that sprang from a drive for perfection or a response to the pressure that has mushroomed around her because of her good looks, the inspiring story of her impoverished childhood, and her recent remarks in an HBO interview about her faith and her virginity,” the article said. All we know is that Jones is not afraid to let people know what she believes, and we give her props for that.
Another Christian competing this year is 28-year-old runner Allyson Felix, who tied for third place in the 100 meter dash trials with her training partner Jeneba Tarmoh. Twenty-two year old Tarmoh backed out of a proposed run-off for the Olympic spot, allowing Felix to advance, NBC News reported. Tarmoh will be an alternate. In a statement, Felix said she wanted to earn her spot in the 100 and was disappointed that the run-off did not take place, but either way she was already set to run her main event, the 200 meter sprint.
Felix won silver medals in 2004 and 2008. In a 2008 article, Yahoo Voices quoted her as saying, “My faith is definitely the most important aspect of my life. … My dad is a pastor and I grew up in a very strong Christian home. Our family was very involved in our church. I’m currently a work in progress, and like everyone else I face struggles every day.”
Seventeen-year-old Neal is of African American and Chinese American descent, but only the second Black female to qualify for the U.S. team, according to The New York Times. Her mother told Life and Times that she believes her daughter, who attends Convent of the Sacred Heart school in Manhattan, is “blessed.” After the trials, Mrs. Neal said, “[Lia] wanted to do well and earn her spot. It came true. I just thank God for it.”
First from the Colorlines list is 28-year-old swimmer Cullen Jones. He “has worked extensively to encourage African-American kids to take up swimming through the ‘Make A Splash initiative, according to Clutch magazine. After qualifying for two individual events, Jones said his plan is “not to let the U.S. down,” The Charlotte Observer reported.
For 28-year-old high jumper Chaunté Lowe, juggling a second child with gold-medal dreams is more challenging now that she has a second child, according to The Los Angeles Times. Lowe and her husband Mario have two daughters, aged 14 months and four years. She told The Times that it was easier to “tag-team” parent with one child than it is with two. Now, she says, “I don’t have that freedom to just move around and train the way that I want to. But I’m a parent first and I have to take care of my responsibilities and when there’s extra time I get to go take care of the other stuff.”
Gymnast John Orozco “has his sights set on achieving Olympic gold and using that platform to give his family a better life,” according to Business Insider. Orozco, who is Peurto Rican, grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx, the article said. When he was ten, he and his brothers were assaulted by a gang of guys as they walked home from church. His mother suffers from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and, in 2007, his father had a stroke in 2007, BI reported, and he gave up college eligibility to go pro in 2011.
Sixteen-year-old gymnast Gabrielle Douglas is called “Flying Squirrel” by U.S. women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi because of her “height-defying release moves on the uneven bars,” The Los Angeles Timesreported. She too has faced family challenges. Her mother, Natalie Hawkins, told The Times that she “almost went into a depression,” when Gabrielle left their home at 14 to train in Iowa with renowned coach Liang Chow. Hawkins said is finalizing her divorce from with Douglas’ father and that the father in the host home where she lives is “an awesome father figure” for her.
Colorlines featured Native American synchronized swimmer Mary Killman today, and Hawaiian volleyball Tamari Miyashiro and Cuban American gymnast Danell Leyva were also featured in their roundup.
So, which Olympians of color inspire you?
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