There’s nothing like the pomp and prestige of the Olympics Games to raise the stakes for the world’s top athletes. With millions of viewers watching, more than 10,000 will compete in this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Fans tune in not only for the physical feats, but for stories of triumph. We want to see who achieves the dream of winning gold on a global stage. Competing at this level forces participants to reckon with priorities. Some Christian athletes enter with a perspective that explicitly challenges the idea that Olympic success would be the pinnacle of their lives. Some learn that lesson as they go.
Regret over having “failed the world” with her silver medal placement in the 2008 Games eventually led gymnast Shawn Johnson to realize that even if she won “12 more Olympic gold medals…it’s not my purpose in life, and he will always be my greatest reward,” she said in a recent video for I Am Second.
The following Christian competitors share how faith inspires and influences their Olympic aspirations, from a shot-putter who leads the team Bible study to a synchronized diver who says God saved him from a diving accident that could have taken his life.
Maya DiRado, 23
Swimming (first-time Olympian)
Swimmer Madeline (Maya) DiRado is headed to Rio knowing that this will be both her first and last Olympics. Competing in the 400-meter medley, the 200-meter medley, and the 200-meter backstroke, the 23-year-old “late bloomer” already declared her intention to retire after this summer and transition to a consulting job awaiting her.
DiRado already caught media attention for her insistence not to be defined by her swimming accomplishments. She credits her Stanford University coach for pushing her to try for the 2016 Olympic team; she was ready to move on after she missed qualifying for the 2012 games. She told Yahoo! Sports, “I don’t think God really cares about my swimming very much. This is not my end purpose, to make the Olympic team.”
“Knowing that I’m a child of God and that his love for me is determined by nothing I can achieve or do on my own has given me a quiet confidence,” DiRado told CT (click here for our full interview with her). “My faith has helped me chart my own course and pursue my goals when people around me may be going in different directions. Jesus’ love for me and all humanity is something that always helps me better love people around me when things get difficult.” When asked what she thinks God does care about as she prepares for Rio, DiRado replied, “I think God cares about my soul and whether I’m bringing his love and mercy into the world. Can I be a loving, supportive teammate, and can I bless others around me in the same way God has been so generous with me?” The California native is projected to medal in at least two of her events.
Simone Manuel, 19
Swimming (first-time Olympian)
When three African American female swimmers finished first, second, and third at the NCAA swimming championships for the first time ever, Simone Manuel was the winner. (Another highlight: Manuel also upset Missy Franklin in the 100 free.) The Texas native will make her Olympics debut in the 50-meter and 100-meter free, part of the first US Olympic swim team to include two black women. "All glory to God. Isn't he awesome!” wrote Manuel in a note on Twitter after qualifying for the Olympics. “I am extremely blessed. A long, tough year, but may more good things to come.”
Jessica Long, 24
Paralympic Swimming (previously competed in 2012 London, 2008 Beijing, 2004 Athens)
Jessica Long was just 12 years old when she competed at the Paralympics for the first time. She won 3 gold medals—the first of the current 17 medals she holds today. Now 24, Long is likely competing in her last Olympics. Long was adopted from Russia by Christian parents as a toddler and had surgery to remove her legs below her knees at age five, since she had been born without fibulas, one of the calf bones.
“I believe God had a plan for me to be adopted from Russia, to come to the United States and become a Paralympic swimmer,” she told USA Swimming after the Beijing Olympics. “Part of his plan is for me to inspire people, whether they have a disability or not.”
David Boudia, 27
Diving (previously competed in 2012 London, 2008 Beijing)
Diving champ David Boudia almost didn’t make it out of the preliminary rounds last Olympics, claiming the last qualifying spot, then going on to take home the gold for Team USA in London.
A member of Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana, Boudia is the author of the forthcoming book Greater than Gold: From Olympic Heartbreak to Ultimate Redemption. "If I represent a good God, I need to be that visual representation of him all the time, not just when I feel like it,” said Boudia, whose wife and toddler will be cheering him on in Rio. The platform diver recently partnered with Christian hip-hop outlet Reach Records to curate a playlist of pump-up music. Boudia will compete in the individual and synchronized 10-meter, along with his diving partner, Steele Johnson.