This year’s Olympic Games include many American athletes of color to root for in a range of sports. While it’s quite overwhelming to keep up with medal counts, records and your favorite athletes, the Olympics are an incredibly inspirational culmination of hard work, sacrifice, and faith. It takes just as many prayers as it does crunches to reach the greatest level in sports. We compiled a short list of American athletes who have boldly confessed their Christian faith on the way to Rio. Check out their stories below and be sure to cheer them on in the coming weeks!
Trayvon Bromell, Track & Field
Twenty-one-year-old Trayvon Bromell is a member of the men’s 100m relay team, something that seemed almost impossible just a few years ago. After suffering debilitating knee and hip injuries, Bromell executed patience and diligence on the road to recovery. “I didn’t have the resources and my family didn’t either, but God got us through it and it all paid off. I put my faith in God, knowing He would get me through it,” Bromell said in a 2015 interview. A junior at Baylor University and NCAA champion, Bromell has received attention from sprinting greats Michael Johnson and Justin Gatlin. He regularly professes his faith on Twitter, including in his bio, “He must become greater; I must become less.” He’s the reigning indoor world champion in the 60m sprint, and will make his Olympic debut August 13 in the 100m and August 18 in the 4x100m relay.
Carlin Isles, Rugby Sevens
Carlin Isles, 26, is known as the fastest man in rugby. A former track and football star at Ashland University, Isles was a long shot prepping for the London Olympics when he came across rugby sevens video online. Knowing his shot at the Olympic track team was slim, he called the head of the U.S. rugby team, switched cities, and began training in a new sport—a decision that required a great leap of faith. “I knew it probably wouldn’t be easy at first … Basically, I put my faith in God and myself and it all panned out,” he told the New York Times. This is the first Olympics featuring rugby sevens (the condensed version of rugby) as a medal sport, and Isles, though only 5 feet 8 inches tall, is one of the quickest in the world. He recently told ESPN, “I pray that when I get there, I can do what God allows me to do and take it from there. I’m sure a good Olympic showing would only be beneficial.” The U.S. team competes against Argentina in Group A on August 9.
Simone Biles, Women’s Gymnastics
By now, you’ve probably heard that Simone Biles and the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team won the gold medal during the 2016 Olympic Games which further confirms what we already knew about this woman of God. She is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most decorated athletes in the world. The gold medalist has taken the entire world by storm during this year’s games and even has a gravity-defying move named after her (Google “The Biles” to see what we mean.), but her story hasn’t always been this amazing. Biles was born to drug-addicted parents which resulted in she and her siblings being shuffled between her mother’s house and foster care. Thankfully, her grandparents eventually adopted Biles and her sister and raised the girls in a God-fearing home where faith and family always came first. Now, fast-forward to today, and you are sure to find a rosary that was given to Biles by her grandmother in her gym bag, and you’ll definitely find her attending church on her only day off from her grueling training schedule, Sunday. In the midst of all the media attention and extraordinary ability, the gymnast has always made faith and family her main priority.
Jordan Burroughs, Wrestling
Jordan Burroughs is defending his Olympic title in freestyle wrestling during the Rio Games. The three-time All-American and two-time undefeated national champion has won multiple international titles and Olympic gold, but none of it, according to Burroughs, compares to a relationship with God. “A gold medal is always going to leave you empty … There’s no other thing in life that’s more fulfilling than a relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s all about being content with God’s provision.” In a beautiful blog post from 2012, Burroughs writes, “I believe that Faith is the most important aspect of our sport and our lives. As a competitor, the first day that we decide to put on a pair of wrestling shoes and step into the center circle and shake hands, we need faith before any victory can ever be earned.” He will begin his title defense August 19 in the men’s freestyle 74kg division.
Claressa Shields, Boxing
Reigning Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields dominated the amateur boxing world and won in her weight class at the inaugural Olympic women’s boxing tournament in London in 2012. The 21-year-old Flint, Michigan native is a historic champion with a stunning 74-1 record. She’s the first American woman to win titles at the Olympics and the Pan American games. Universal Pictures recently acquired the rights to make a movie about her life. Despite her success in the ring, Shields cites her faith as the source of her drive to give back. “[Harriet Tubman] was a very strong black woman and I think it took a whole lot of courage to actually be free and go back and free others and I feel like that’s kind of my job as a Christian,” Shields said during a 2015 Black History Month keynote speech. “I made it and it’s time to come back and save others to help them be as successful as they can be.” Catch her in action August 17 in the women’s middle 75kg class.
Allyson Felix, Track & Field
Allyson Felix is a household name in track and field, and for good reason: she’s a 4-time Olympic gold medalist, with over 30 championship medals over the length of her career, and a 4-time recipient of the Jesse Owens Award, the USATF’s version of Athlete of the Year. Rio marks her fourth Olympics, and at the age of 30, Felix hasn’t slowed down—literally. She also isn’t shy about discussing her devout Christian faith, which she says keeps her going. Felix recently told the LA Times, “Faith leads my life. That’s definitely the reason that I run. I feel like I’ve been blessed with this gift, and so that’s something that helps me to see the bigger picture.” She is also a member of Project Believe, an anti-doping program to fight the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Felix voluntarily gets tested for PEDs regularly to promote integrity in the sport. In a recent Instagram post, she quoted Eric Liddell: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Allyson will race August 13, 15, and 19 in the 400m, 200m, and 4x400m relay, respectively.
SPRINTING FOR GOLD: After winning silver in 2004 and 2008, U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix finally wins gold. (Photo by Troy Wayrnen/Newscom)
Another U.S. gold medal and another athlete gives glory to God for it. “I’m so thankful for God to have this opportunity,” Allyson Felix told NBC sports after yesterday’s win in the 200-meter sprint final. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for so long. Praying that His will be done, and not my own. Ready to run my HEART out,” she tweeted before the race.
This was the third 200-meter Olympic medal for Felix. In 2004 and 2008, she came in second to Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown. “The moments that motivated me most were losing on the biggest stage,” Felix said, “and just never forgetting that feeling.”
As usual, Felix’s family was in the stands for her big moment. Her father, Paul, is an ordained minister and an associate professor at The Master’s Seminary in Santa Clarita, California; her mother, Marlean, is an elementary school teacher; and, her brother, Wes, is her agent, USA Today reported. (Her father is also president of Los Angeles Bible Training School).
“Marlean had said the family, as devout Christians, would be able to handle another Olympic disappointment,” USA Today reported. Instead they celebrated. But, in a 2010 interview with the Heart of a Champion foundation, Marlean said the family is most proud of Allyson’s humility. She also said she and her husband made a decision early on in their daughter’s career to travel to all her meets to provide support.
“Her life has played out in the eight lanes of a running track for more than a decade now. There was a dirt oval in southern California when she was a freshman in high school where a part-time track coach was stunned to see her run so gracefully in clunky basketball shoes. There was the ancient surface in Mexico City where she ran so fast in the 200 as a 17-year-old that the entire sprint world took notice. There were stadiums in Finland, Japan and Germany where she won world championship gold medals; and others in Greece and China, where she took Olympic silvers. …She is an elder stateswoman at the age of 26,” Sports Illustrated reported today.
Felix got her start at Los Angeles Baptist High School and came to faith at an early age, she said in a testimony published by RunTheRaceDaily.com. “I’m currently a work in progress and like anyone else I face struggles every day. My goal is to be more Christ-like each and every day and that is not an easy task,” Felix said. “I feel so blessed that God has given me the talent of running. My running is an amazing gift from God and I want to use it to the best of my ability to glorify Him.”
PROUD TO REPRESENT HER COUNTRY: Allyson Felix celebrates her win. (Photo by Troy Wayrnen/Newscom)
Felix “has taught Sunday school and feels a special burden to work with young people,”Decision magazine reported July 26. “Once this year’s Games are over, she said, she’ll get right back into the swing of serving at her church.”
When asked if she has a life verse in an interview with About.com, she said,”Philippians 1:21 is very special to me because it helps to keep my life centered. In every situation in my life I want to be able to say, ‘For me to live is Christ … and nothing else, and to die is gain.’ It really keeps life in perspective for me and encourages me to make sure my priorities are straight.”
U.S. sprinter Carmelita Jeter, who took bronze in the 200 meters, is also a Christian, Chad Bonham reported at Beliefnet. “I wanna thank yall for being so supportive, im on the medal stand AGAIN. #Godbetheglory,” Jeter tweeted last night.
In what Sports Illustrated described as “the best night for Team USA on the track since Aug. 6, 1992,” our athletes won seven medals: three gold (Felix, Brittney Reese in the long jump and Aries Merritt in the 110-meter hurdles), two silver (Lashinda Demus in the 400-meter hurdles and Jason Richardson in the 110-meter hurdles) and two bronze (Jeter and Janay DeLoach in the long jump). Every one of them gave thanks and/or glory to God for their wins. Click the links on their names to see what they said.
What do you think?
Is there a spiritual revival taking place among U.S.A. Track & Field athletes?
THE OTHER RUNNERS: Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells take a victory lap after finishing second and third in the women’s 100-meter hurdles during the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Photo by Image of Sport/Newscom)
When Olympic hurdler Dawn Harper added a silver medal in the 100-meter race to her 2008 gold yesterday, she celebrated like she had won first place again. It was only later that she and her teammate Kellie Wells, who won bronze, expressed their disappointment that media attention has focused so heavily on Lolo Jones, the teammate they both outran and who took fourth place.
In an NBC interview that aired immediately after the race, Harper and Wells both expressed their gratitude to God for having made it to the games and to the medal stand. Last night Wells tweeted, “God has gotten me to this point. he brought me to my coach, my fam, friends, support systems. I am forever astonished by his wonders.” And, in an undated post published by Athletes in Action, she said, “I’ve been through a lot of stuff in life and could have ended up in terrible places if it wasn’t for God choosing me, and choosing my life, and placing me in a good environment. So I just trust Him, and I love Him. I know I haven’t always been this – I haven’t always been good. Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody sins. But I realize how good God is to me, when He doesn’t really have to be. He set a plan for us, we have a book (the Bible) that tells us exactly how to live, and how life is supposed to be. It’s really hard to follow all the time. But God keeps me when I haven’t kept myself. And that’s an amazing feeling.”
Wells was sexually abused and raped by her stepfather, according to news reports. Then both he and her mother were killed in a car crash. “I know my story is very common to a lot of people, and it’s swept under the rug a lot,” Wells told The Telegraph. “If I can help at least one person and show you don’t have to be a product of your environment, you don’t have to keep secrets, and you don’t have to hide, that would be amazing.”
Harper talked about her faith journey in an interview with Beliefnet blogger Chad Bonham and explained the gospel’s importance in her life in a video produced by Athletes in Action. But when she and Wells were asked by NBC Sports this morning if they were getting enough respect for their accomplishments, Harper said that after her 2008 win over Jones, she felt as if she and her story had been pushed aside in favor of Jones’. “That hurt. It did. It hurt my feelings. But I feel as if I showed I can deal with the pressure, I came back, and I think you kinda got to respect it a little bit now,” she said.
“On the podium tonight, the three girls that earned their spot and they got their medals and they worked hard and did what they needed to do, prevailed. And that’s all that really needs to be said,” added Wells.
Lest one think Harper and Wells are poor winners, ESPN’s Jim Caple said today that it isn’t so and concluded that Harper’s assessment is correct. USA Today, for example, headlined and led its article on yesterday’s race with Jones’ “heartbreak.”
“Despite losing the gold medal to Australia’s Sally Pearson by two-hundredths of a second, Harper was about as happy as an athlete can be after her race. She joked, she laughed, she smiled. She spoke proudly of her performance: ‘I was pretty darn fast today.’ She talked about enjoying the entire Olympic experience rather than focusing so much on the medals that she lost track of everything else. She even talked about throwing a party for her hometown,” said Caple.
Harper told him that her public relations agent advised her not to talk about the preferential media attention given to Jones, but she wanted to “be real” with her fans. “I’ve put so much out there and sacrificed so much, I feel like my life/story has kind of been trampled on for the last four years,” said Harper, who, like Jones, overcame “humble beginnings” and injury to become an Olympian.
However, asked in a pre-race interview with The Washington Post if all the attention focused on Jones’ was frustrating, Harper cited her faith, saying, “At one point, it was. I don’t want to lie and say that it wasn’t. . . . I have dropped to my knees and just prayed about it and said, ‘I know that I’m blessed just to be here.’”
Jones, meanwhile, was dealing not only with her loss, but also with hurt feelings from a scathing New York Times article about her that was published August 4, just days before the race. “They should be supporting our U.S. Olympic athletes and instead they just ripped me to shreds,” Jones told the Today show this morning. “I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race and the fact that they just tore me apart, which is heartbreaking. … I have the American record. I am the American record holder indoors, I have two world indoor titles. Just because I don’t boast about these things, I don’t think I should be ripped apart by media. I laid it out there, fought hard for my country and it’s just a shame that I have to deal with so much backlash when I’m already so brokenhearted as it is.”
What do you think?
Should these Christian women do a better job of publicly supporting each other no matter what draws the media spotlight or is Harper right to complain?
LET’S GO: First Lady Michelle Obama urged America’s athletes to ‘have fun, breathe a bit, but also win,’ when she visited their training base in east London today. Mrs. Obama is leading the US presidential delegation which includes a ringside seat at tonight’s ceremony. (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/Newscom)
The 2012 London Olympic games begin today with a ceremony that will turn London’s Olympic Stadium into “green and pleasant land” and will include “a wide array of animal,” E-Online reported. The “green and pleasant land” phrase comes from a patriotic hymn that is based on a William Blake poem, in case you’re wondering. But, amidst sounds of popular British music, there will also be “a game of village cricket as well as a giant replica of Glastonbury Tor in southwest England, with spectators filling up a mosh pit to reflect the Glastonbury music festival.” First Lady Michelle Obama and her husband’s presumptive rival Mitt Romney will be in attendance, the Associated Press reported. NBC begins its broadcast at 7:30 p.m. EST.
Why, one may ask, do the honorable games begin with such odd extravaganzas? “The Olympic opening ceremony embraces the elusive elements that keep bringing us back to sports: pageantry and excitement, the beauty of teamwork and perhaps deep down a sense that sports can somehow facilitate a long-sought-after peace and harmony in the world,” The New York Times reported. The games themselves are “a peaceful celebration of our warlike nature,” Times columnist David Brooks’ opined this morning.
Who knew? I just like to watch the runners and the tumblers. Then when I’m out jogging or doing cartwheels in my soon-to-be 48-year-old body, I imagine myself persevering or flexing my way through any number of personal or professional challenges. In other words, I watch to be inspired and to escape the drudgery of daily life.
PHOTO OP: Mrs. Obama met with members of Team USA this morning. Here she poses with the 2012 Women’s Basketball team. (Photo: Jeff Moore/Newscom)
Previously, we highlighted seven Christian Olympians of color who inspire.Then, Charisma featured some we missed. Among them are hurdler Dawn Harper, basketball players Kevin Durant and Tamika Catchings, weightlifter Kendrick Farris (who asked for donations to help him bring his family to the games), and decathlete Bryan Clay, who failed to make the team, but won Gold in 2008.
Clay was interviewed by author Chad Bonham, who has a book out about 18 Olympians of faith. Asked how he manages expectations vs. the reality that his identity isn’t wrapped up in results, Clay said, in part, “Does God care if you win a game or a race or a gold medal? I’m going to venture out and say, no, probably not. But what He does care about are the lessons you’ve learned along the way through the win or the loss. Whether you win or lose, I think God’s number one goal for you is that you bring glory back to Him. If that means you have to lose for God to get the glory, then that’s what’s going to happen.”
That’s a gold-medal lesson, if ever there was one.
If you still can’t get enough of inspiring athletes, Bonham has also published interviews with past Olympians like Dave Johnson (decathlon) and Shannon Miller (gymnastics), and has a preview up of this year’s competitors. The New York Times Magazine took a unique approach in a lengthy profile of White Christian marathoner Ryan Hall. Its story hinged on Hall’s contention that God is his coach. About.com interviewed Christian runner Sonya Richards-Ross, Elev-8 featured Boxer Claressa Shields, and Christianity Today highlighted basketball player Maya Moore.
If you’re interested in the race angle, The Root published a Black Olympian slideshow and The Grio asked if the games will “save East London’s multicultural community.”
Finally, Charisma reported that “Christian organizations will have volunteers on hand in pedestrian corridors and transport hubs to generate conversations with visitors through creative arts and acts of kindness, and to hold chapel services and other events for people attending the Games.”
I was going to conclude by suggesting you grab a bag of chips and put your feet up to watch the opening ceremony tonight, but I suppose I should suggest instead that you go for a brisk walk first, or, if you’re still at work, munch some carrots while you watch from the stair-master later. In any case, happy viewing!