The Trials of Parenting Athletes
Tim, by the grace of God, turned out to be a godly young man. God blessed the tightrope we walked, and answered my many agonized prayers, but I see many parents whose children will never be world-class athletes who are rarely in worship on Sundays because of their sports.
Where does a parent draw the line? For me, it would have been if I felt my son were losing his relationship with God. I never felt that his faith was flagging. If I did, I think I would have pulled him out of the sport immediately. As it is, God actually deepened Tim's faith through gymnastics and blessed him with a free undergraduate education at a fine school. Even Tim's career-ending injury led to a deepening of his relationship with God and awakened a desire to further explore the relationship between faith and suffering. Was this God's way of drawing Tim to his calling? Would it have happened if he had never been injured? God alone knows.
The second area in which I struggled had to do with injuries. As an athlete advances, the risk of serious injury increases. Some sports - and gymnastics is among them - have particularly high levels of risk for catastrophic injury. Since gymnasts fly through the air, flipping and twisting, sometimes at heights of 12-15 feet, very serious injury and even death can occur. Tim broke his neck while performing a triple-back-flip dismount from the horizontal bar (it was loose).
It takes a great amount of faith to trust in God when one's child seems almost to "tempt" the Lord by what he or she does. Countless prayers were offered by myself and my wife - and by Tim too - for his protection through all the countless house of practice and travel and competition.
Tim first made a junior national development team when he was 12, and he was ranked first in the country for his age, and great expectations were placed on his shoulders. Then it seemed like he kept getting injured just before the national championships. As any father would, I longed to see my son's dreams fulfilled. I prayed to God that they would be. When injuries prevented him making the national team again, I wrestled with my faith and trust in God. I had to commit myself to the notion that God loved my son more than I ever could, and God had His reasons for what happened. I confess that sometimes I questioned God's purposes and wisdom. Why should Tim keep getting injured right before the big competitions, competitions he was often expected to win?
At times it seemed that God had a vendetta against my son. What I later came to realize was that God was teaching Tim about persistence, perseverance, dedication, and commitment, lessons Tim might not have learned otherwise. When he won the junior nationals at 15, and then the national "skills" competition at 17, he also learned how to win with grace and give gratitude and glory to God.
It isn't easy being a world class athlete. I could see that with perfect clarity. Yet it's not easy being the parent of one, either. We experience the ups and downs - the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as they use to say - with our children, and while God is teaching them many lessons, He is also teaching us.
Galen C. Dalrymple is the pastor of Vineyard Hills Christian Church in Cloverdale, California. Galen is a frequent contributor to Patheos, and his son Tim manages the Evangelical Portal. For other articles on gymnastics and faith, see the interviews of Samantha Peszek and Stephen McCain, and forthcoming interviews of Dominique Moceanu and Sally Ward.