Tim Ellsworth of Baptist Press is providing stories from the Rio Olympic Games that spotlight Christian athletes who are competing and provide insight from a Christian worldview as the world is paying attention to what is happening the next few weeks in Brazil.
Diving duo wins silver, gives credit to Christ
RIO DE JANEIRO (BP) — U.S. divers David Boudia and Steele Johnson have known each other for 10 years, since a teenaged Boudia drove the 10-year-old Johnson to practice every day.
On Monday (Aug. 9), Boudia teamed up with that “little giggly kid in the back seat,” as he remembered Johnson, to win a silver medal in the men’s synchronized 10-meter platform event.
“It was a successful day for both of us,” Boudia said. “Going into it and throughout the competition, I’ve never felt so content and so calm, and you’re at the Olympic Games with millions of people watching you. So it’s a pretty good feeling, and we know … that peace comes from God.”
Boudia and Johnson held second place after each of their six dives. The Chinese pair of Aisen Chen and Yue Lin dominated the event, posting a final score of 496.98 that easily outpaced the U.S. team’s 457.11 points.
British divers Tom Daley and Daniel Goodfellow won the bronze.
The silver gives Boudia the third Olympic medal of his career after he won gold in the men’s 10-meter platform and bronze in the same synchronized event in London in 2012. This event was Johnson’s Olympic debut, and he credits Boudia with aiding in his development.
“He is the embodiment of the word ‘mentor’ to me,” Johnson said. “He’s been a solid rock for me in my walk through this Olympic journey and my walk through life outside of the pool. He’s gone above and beyond to help me become a man of integrity.”
Boudia, likewise, gives Johnson credit for helping him rediscover his passion and love for the sport during times over the past four years when he lost interest in diving.
“He’s been a special guy and a true brother in my life,” Boudia said. In an interview with NBC after their competition, both Boudia and Johnson talked about how their faith prepared them to compete.
“When my mind is on this and thinking that I’m defined by this, my mind goes crazy,” Boudia said. “But we do have to know that our identity’s in Christ. We’re thankful for this opportunity to be able to dive in front of Brazil and for the United States. It’s been an absolutely thrilling moment for us.”
Johnson echoed Boudia’s statement about the importance of remembering that his identity is in Christ and not in the result of a competition.
“It just gave me peace,” Johnson said. “It gave me ease, and it let me enjoy the contest.”
Faith, support steadies archer’s focus
RIO DE JANEIRO (BP) — Mackenzie Brown showed enough promise as an archer that she moved to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., as a teenager.
That proved to be a difficult experience that required a lot of extra maturity, and Brown relied on the Lord to help her through those times.
“That was kind of a culture shock for me,” Brown, now 21, told Baptist Press. “It definitely put me through a couple of rough patches where my faith wasn’t as strong, but I always came back. God always found me and pulled me out every time. I thank Him every day for it.”
Brown, the fourth-ranked archer in the world, was upset in the round of 16 on Monday (Aug. 8) by San Ye Htwe of Myanmar, ending her hopes for a medal and bringing her first Olympic competition to a close. Despite the disappointing outcome, Brown’s Olympic journey was done with the support of her family and her family’s home church, Flint Baptist Church in Flint, Texas.
Brown’s mother Stacey is the Vacation Bible School director at the church. Her father Chuck and sister Rilie are also members there. Though Brown attends church in California where she lives, she also manages to stay connected to the Flint congregation.
Earlier this summer, the church showed video messages from Brown to the children attending the Olympic-themed Vacation Bible School. Senior Pastor Sam DeVille said Brown spoke to the children about maintaining their integrity at all times and remembering who they were, even if they find themselves in the spotlight.
“She really walks the walk,” DeVille said of Brown. “She really is a true disciple of Jesus Christ.”
The church also helped the Browns in their efforts to raise money to
travel to Rio to watch Mackenzie compete. On their GoFundMe page, Chuck and Stacey write that their goal as parents “has always been to first point our girls to their Heavenly Father in everything. Next is to help and encourage them to make the best use of the talents and gifts God has blessed them with. Mackenzie has absolutely done that in a way that has blown our minds.”
That foundation in Brown’s life was one reason why she became a Christian at age 7.
“What was actually really cool is that my mom got baptized with me at the same time,” Brown said, “because she had accepted Christ in her heart but never got baptized. That was a really cool experience to have together.”
Swimmer wins gold, shares source of happiness
RIO DE JANEIRO (BP) — Take a close look at Caeleb Dressel during some of his swimming competitions, and you’ll notice a Scripture reference written across his face.
The reference changes with each event, and he hasn’t yet worn the references at the Olympics, but a favorite one for the 19-year-old is Isaiah 40:31: “but those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles….”
That verse served as the inspiration for the large eagle tattoo on Dressel’s left shoulder, and the Scripture references he wears are not just for him.
“It’s the reason I’m in the sport, not just to go fast times, but to inspire people and show them where I find my happiness with what God’s given me,” Dressel said in an interview last year after U.S. Nationals.
Dressel made his Olympic debut on Sunday (Aug. 7) in stunning fashion, winning a gold medal as part of the U.S. men’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay team. Swimming the first leg ahead of teammate Michael Phelps, Dressel turned in a personal-best time of 48.10, just .02 seconds behind the leader to keep the U.S. team close. Phelps then pulled the U.S. team ahead for good.
Dressel swims again on Tuesday (Aug. 9) in the qualifying heats of the men’s 100-meter freestyle. He hopes to do well enough to advance to the finals on Wednesday.
Not bad for a guy who gave up the sport for nearly six months his senior year of high school because he simply wasn’t enjoying it.
“Coming out of that I started swimming again and really just put all my trust in God and knowing that He’s going to take care of everything for me, good or bad,” Dressel told Baptist Press. “I really learned a lot, and I really learned to see the light at the end of the tunnel and trust what God is doing, whether it be a rough point in your life or a top pinnacle in your life. You’ve just got to take pauses and really trust what He’s doing.”
Dressel was raised in a Christian home, but since moving away from Green Cove Springs, Fla., and attending the University of Florida, his faith has become more personal — because he knows his beliefs are coming solely from him and not just his parents. He attends church at Campus Church of Christ in Gainesville.
His absence from swimming in high school was a difficult time for him, and Dressel admits that he wrestled with some “mental demons” during that period and struggled in his walk with the Lord. But eventually he returned, both to the pool and to his commitment to Christ.
“It’s what I’m meant to do,” Dressel said about swimming. “I found my passion for the sport. I really love the sport. You get to meet a whole bunch of new people. You get to create new relationships. You get to share some of the best memories of your life with these people that I’m with.
“Swimming is my life and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he continued. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing, and God gave me the talent and I’m going to do that for Him, myself and my family and all my friends.”
With that newfound passion, Dressel excelled as a swimmer. He earned consecutive NCAA national championships in 2015 and 2016 in the 50-yard freestyle, and added another NCAA title in 2016 in the 100-yard freestyle. He earned his spot on the Olympic team by placing second in the 100-meter freestyle at the 2016 Olympic trials.
In addition to wearing Scripture references on his face, he often posts verses and references on Twitter. One tweet from several months ago seems especially relevant to the challenges and successes Dressel has faced: “When you avail yourself of God’s grace and power, your comeback is always greater than your setback.”
‘Thy will be done’ is shooter’s prayer
RIO DE JANEIRO (BP) — In Sarah Scherer’s competitions, the slightest movement — even an errant breath — can be the difference between winning and losing.
It’s understandable that such circumstances can cause times of nervousness and tension during a shooting competition. That’s why the Olympic shooter a few months ago decided to start reciting the Lord’s Prayer to herself when the pressure is on.
“I realized I do that in life,” Scherer told Baptist Press. “I might as well do that when I’m competing. Being able to say a prayer that’s a structured prayer is very comforting.”
The 2016 Olympics are a return visit for Scherer, who competed in the women’s 10-meter air rifle competition in London in 2012. This time, in addition to that event, she’s also representing Team USA in the 50-meter rifle three position, in which competitors shoot at a target from kneeling, prone and standing positions.
When she’s competing, Scherer has to summon every ounce of focus and concentration she can to be successful. And she has a time limit. That’s where the Lord’s Prayer comes in — something she knows by heart and can recite quickly without losing mental focus.
“The words are still just as meaningful, and they’re still prayerful,” she said.
That prayer shows Scherer’s reliance upon God, especially the words “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” It’s a phrase that Scherer has grown to appreciate over the past several months, especially when it looked like she was going to bid the sport farewell.
A back injury required surgery in September 2014. Though the surgery was successful, Scherer reinjured her back in March 2015, requiring a second surgery. The way her competition schedule was arranged, Scherer thought she had no chance of making the 2016 Olympic team since she didn’t have enough recovery time to compete in the events necessary to earn her Olympic spot.
So Scherer began the process of retiring, which proved difficult emotionally.
“I had to trust that the Lord had a plan and bigger purpose for it,” she said.
But just a couple of weeks before her second surgery, she got a call from her coach informing her that the World Cup schedule had been changed, and another event had been added that would give Scherer the minimum qualifications for the Olympics.
The timeline was tight, but it wasn’t impossible. And sure enough, after recovering from her second surgery, Scherer rehabbed, trained and earned her second Olympic berth.
“God had an amazing plan this whole time,” she said. “No matter what might happen, God is all powerful, and He can change crazy things to make things work out. So you have to trust His purposes.”
Through that journey over the past year, Scherer said the Lord has challenged her to learn more about Him and about His faithfulness. As she prepares to compete in Rio, she’s confident as an athlete. She’s also confident that God will care for her, no matter the circumstances.
“I have goals of how hard I want to work and what type of score I’m expecting and challenging myself with,” Scherer said. “But when it comes down to it, I’m going to trust the Lord in whatever happens as well, whether it’s better or worse.”
Team USA flag bearer Phelps’ rehab ‘Purpose-Driven’
RIO DE JANEIRO (BP) — Michael Phelps, Team USA flag bearer at the Olympics opening ceremony (Aug. 5) in Rio De Janeiro, was heavily influenced by Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life” during rehab after his second arrest on a drunken driving charge.
“It’s turned me into believing that there is a power greater than myself, and there is a purpose for me on this planet,” Phelps said about the book in an ESPN feature.
The most decorated Olympian ever with 22 medals including 18 gold to his credit, Phelps originally retired after the 2012 London Olympics. He was arrested in September 2014 for his second Driving Under the Influence offense while attempting a comeback. In the days following the arrest, Phelps locked himself in his room, eating and sleeping little, as he evaluated his life, he told ESPN.
“I just figured that it was the best thing to do to just end my life,” Phelps said.
But after a conversation with his friend and former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis, and at the encouragement of other loved ones, Phelps decided to enter rehab at The Meadows outside Phoenix. Lewis gave Phelps a copy of the book before he left.
Phelps spent 45 days at The Meadows, often calling Lewis to talk about some of the content he was reading and sharing with others in rehab.
After completing the program, Phelps worked to rebuild his fractured relationship with his father Fred, who divorced Phelps’ mother when Phelps was 9. He also resumed his training, eventually qualifying for his fifth Olympics. Phelps’ U.S. teammates elected him as the flag bearer for the opening ceremony.
Phelps credits “The Purpose-Driven Life” for much of the good he experienced in life during and after rehab.
“It helped me when I was in a place where I needed the most help,” he said.
Since its 2002 release, The Purpose Driven Life has sold more than 40 million copies and has been translated into 50 languages, including Afrikaans, Arabic, Farsi, Rwandan, Sango, Swahili and Zulu, according to Bible Gateway.