The Faith of an Olympian

An Interview of Samantha Peszek

Samantha Peszek won a silver medal with the United States team at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.  She was a crucial member of the team along with Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, and Alicia Sacramone, and after she injured herself she still competed and supported the team.

Samantha, thanks for sharing your thoughts and your experiences with us.  Is your faith an important part of your life as a gymnast?  How does your faith affect the way you practice and compete and relate to other gymnasts?

I am Catholic and I do think my faith helps me as a gymnast -- not necessarily my gymnastics skills, but the outlook and attitude I have everyday at practice.  I usually see the glass half-full, which I think is a very important part of how I train.  In gymnastics, mental training is everything.  My faith also affects competitions.  I know that God will be with me and give me the strength that I need to finish the competition to the best of my ability.

Do you think that God teaches you things through your gymnastics?  Are there any ways in which you feel God's help or guidance during practice or competitions?

I do believe that God is with me during practice as well as the competition.  His guidance gets me through each and every day.  Not every day is going to be perfect, but on the rough days I know that God is with me and He helps to carry me through.

What are some temptations that Christians face in the life of the gymnast -- in practices, camps, and competitions -- and how do you deal with them?

One of the problems I had as a Catholic was that we use to have competitions on Sundays, so I couldn't go to church.  I went to a Catholic school, so I would go Friday instead.  Of course it is hard to do the "right thing" all the time in every situation.  Sometimes it's especially hard in gymnastics because everyone wants to be the best.  It is really important to remember your morals and to think of what God would do.

Does your gymnastics glorify God?  How can gymnasts and other athletes glorify God through their athletics?

I always try to portray a positive and happy attitude, and I hope that other gymnasts or athletes pick up on that when they watch on television or during practice.  It is important to enjoy what you are doing and make the best of everything.  God is always going to be with you.  I try to cheer for all the girls and help them out in any way I can. Sometimes the girls just need a "pick up" and a laugh.

We notice on television that teams, like the 2008 Olympic team, sometimes pray during competitions.  Do you often pray with other gymnasts?  Did the 2008 team talk about God?  Were there others who were devout believers?

One of the things I always have to do before a competition is pray.  I like to do it with a group.  I am sure you have seen us in a huddle and we usually give a pep talk.  At the end of the pep talk, I lead a prayer and it is a little gymnastics chat thing that we do as a ritual.  We hold pinkies and say it together.  It is a cute reminder that God will help us during the competition and keep us safe.

You were injured at the very last moment -- during warm-ups -- right before the Olympic competition started.  Yet you soldiered on and contributed to the team and competed on the bars.  How do you, as a person of faith, understand hardships such as that?  And how do you respond to them?

To be honest, it was a really hard time for me, and definitely not easy to bounce back from.  I thought of everyone else's needs and the needs of my country at that point.  I was thankful to get the opportunity to do bars, and I wouldn't have given up that chance for anything.

Finally, if a younger gymnast is reading this article and she wants to know how she can strengthen and deepen her faith through her life as an athlete, would you have any advice for her?  What can you tell her that might help her find God in the gym?

There is a difference between being goal-oriented and being self-centered; I think many athletes have a hard time with that.  I try to help the other girls in the gym, give them advice, or set a good example.  I think that finding the pleasure and seeing the blessings that each gymnast has in their talent is really special.  On the hard days it's important to remember the gifts that God has already given us and how much we are capable of doing because of Him.

To read another account of faith and athletics from an Olympic gymnast, read Patheos' interview with Stephen McCain.

Peszek was also a member of the gold-medal-winning United States teams at the 2007 World Championships and the 2007 Pan American Games.  She was named the 2007 TOPs Athlete of the Year.  Her parents were both athletes and her younger sister Jessica will soon enter the elite ranks.  Samantha is a member of the National Honor Society at her high school in Indiana, and she will attend and compete for UCLA in 2010.  She also works with Jireh Sports, a ministry to at-risk youth.