The Olympic Promised Land
As Stephen McCain said in our recent interview, the Olympics is not merely the highly televised affair that takes place every four years; it is the whole story of hard work and sacrifice, the entire narrative arc that brings you there. Although I missed out on the final competition, I was privileged to experience the rest of the story. Standing atop the podium can be a good and glorious thing. Yet there is glory also in the fight, in the fight itself, in the will to push against the outermost boundaries of human capability in order to achieve one's goal.
Second, I am grateful for gymnastics because the gyms where I trained, the gyms where I grew up and became who I am, were my personal laboratories of faith. I spent practices and competitions in near-constant dialogue with God. The life of an elite gymnast is difficult and often solitary. God was my sole companion through it all, the one constant, a reservoir of peace and strength.
Night by night I lay awake and watched a banner of Olympic dreams unfurl in brilliant colors above my bed. Night by night I prayed that God would see fit to take me there, but yielded myself to God and asked that He accomplish His will through my gymnastics career. Can I now complain that His will was not my own?
By the time of my accident, God had already, through gymnastics, lavished extraordinary and undeserved goodness upon me. When I won the junior national championships at fifteen, it was the most powerful spiritual experience I had ever had; I felt throughout that I was only a joyful instrument in the Master's hands, as though I merely watched my body move through the motions until the competition was complete and I stood atop the podium. At the national skills-testing competition when I was sixteen, my ankle was sprained so badly that I could only limp to each event -- and yet I won the title and was never more humbled.
Ironically, the last time I surrendered my gymnastics career to God was the summer before my injury. I had been wrestling with my commitment to gymnastics. I was never quite happy or comfortable in the Stanford gym as a freshman, and I enjoyed everything else the university had to offer. All the other gymnasts my age were aiming for the 2000 and not the 1996 Olympics. Also, I was afraid. I feared rushing into more difficult and dangerous routines; I feared the crushing pressures and anxieties of the buildup to the Olympic Trials; I feared failure.
It had been easy to strive for the Olympics when they were abstract and distant. Yet in the summer of 1995, for the first time in my life, with the sacrifices and risks right in front of me, my selfish desire was not to train for the 1996 Olympics. I am so glad I came to that point before the end. It allowed me, also for the first time in my life, to commit myself to gymnastics truly and fully for God and not for myself. I recommitted because I knew that chasing the 1996 Olympics would require a strength and courage greater than I possessed; I knew that I could endure the grueling training and the daunting pressures only by trusting God and depending on Him daily. I was convinced that God wanted me to do it, fundamentally, because I could not do it. I could only go forward in faith.
In the months after that recommitment, my experience as a gymnast was transformed. I trained harder than I had ever trained before, and I grew stronger on every event. Every night I left the Stanford gym exhilarated and grateful to God. It felt as though God and I were rider and horse working together and charging to the front of the pack.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.