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Kyle Eller: Struggle with anxiety? Olympic athletes have a faith lesson for you

You would not know it to look at me today, but when I was younger, I was a pretty decent athlete. I matured physically at a young age and excelled in track and field through about middle school. Even after my classmates caught up, as a young man I could grab the rim on a regulation basketball hoop, even though I’m a touch under six feet tall.

I was a decent athlete, that is, when I was not in front of people. I didn’t have much stage fright when it came to things like music, but for whatever reason, that did not carry over into sports. I could routinely drill three-pointers on the playground, but in a real game, I was more likely to airball a free throw.

Kyle Eller

Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

Perhaps that’s one reason Olympic athletes amaze me with their poise under pressure. I can only imagine what it’s like to be at the pinnacle of your sport, going against the best athletes in the world, with the whole world watching.

For many people, anxiety is a regular part of life. Our society emphasizes competition, to an unhealthy degree in my view. It is easy to feel measured and judged, as if everything depends on how well we perform at something, whether it’s an Olympic athlete or a writer facing a blank page or an office worker giving a presentation — or any of a million other situations. Many of us feel like we’re never quite enough.

There were many striking “faith moments” during the recently concluded Olympic games in Rio, beginning with the ever-present statue of Christ the Redeemer watching over everything. Even in our often-discouraging cultural moment, God finds wonderful, unexpected ways to make his presence felt, and the Olympics was one of them.

Several of the stars of this Olympics who gave legendary performances and finished with piles of gold medals are reportedly serious Catholics — like gymnast Simone Biles, swimmer Katie Ledecky and sprinter Usain Bolt.

The most decorated Olympian ever, swimmer Michael Phelps, opened up about his own story of redemption. He talked about having hit bottom after the last Olympics and thinking about suicide, and part of his road to recovery involved reading evangelical author Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” and subsequently finding purpose in his own life.

Distance runner Abbey D’Agostino, who embodied the spirit of sportsmanship when she stopped to help and encourage a competitor with whom she had collided, then struggled across the finish line herself because of an injury, was raised in a Catholic family, according to Catholic News Agency, and she says God prepared her heart for that iconic moment. “This whole time here he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance — and as soon as Nikki [Hamblin] got up I knew that was it.”

She also has said that her faith is what has carried her through injuries and helps her with anxiety in a big race.

The most moving testimony along these lines that I saw came from American divers David Boudia and Steele Johnson after they had won a silver medal in synchronized diving. Right on prime time TV, they said that when their minds focus on the diving and the event, things get crazy and chaotic, but when they focus on the fact that their identity is rooted in Christ, they find peace of mind regardless of the outcome.

I found it moving in part because it’s a truth I rely on all the time in the face of my own anxiety and selfdoubt. (Or at least I rely on it when I remember to.)

To people without faith, I suspect this sounds at best like a “life hack” — a way to modify your thought process to perform better — or at worst as a kind of “crutch” for people who are mentally fragile.

But thanks be to God it is neither of those things. It’s not a trick, it’s the truth. And it’s because it’s the truth that it “works.”

It’s really true that if we are in friendship with Jesus Christ and stand in his grace, destined to spend eternity with him in heaven, our worldly successes and failures are trivial in comparison. Rooted in Jesus, we have every reason to have joy and peace whether we win the gold medal or belly flop in the pool and come in dead last. And if God thought I was worth going to the cross for, that puts what other people think in fresh light.

To paraphrase St. John Paul II, we are valuable first and foremost for what we are, not for what we do or possess.

This is deeply liberating. Instead of feeling some need to prove ourselves — or feeling fear and anxiety that we will fail and be exposed as worthless frauds — we can strive to use our gifts out of love for God and neighbor in a spirit of gratitude, confident that we are loved and valued by God independent of the outcome. Small wonder we might use those gifts better than when we think our whole identity rides on it.

Indeed, as D’Agostino exemplified, if we are rooted in the truth, we may find that the greatest success comes when we don’t win the race.

Don’t be ashamed if you struggle with this. Anyone who has spent any length of time with me could tell you that I am right there with you, needing constant reminding.

But if this fundamental reality is something we learn more deeply after watching the 2016 Summer Olympics, we will have gained something better than gold.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at keller@dioceseduluth.org.