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Representing Christ on sport's greatest stage

Date posted: 11/08/16
Representing Christ on sport's greatest stage 
 
As the Rio Olympics gather pace, ex-athletes Debbie Flood and Adam Pengilly tell us what it is like to compete at the games. Debbie won silver medals as a rower at Athens and Beijing and also reached the final in London. Adam raced skeleton bobsleigh at Turin and Vancouver, winning a world silver medal in between. Here, in an interview for the Christians in Sport podcast, the pair offer an insider’s view on the games and share how their Christian faith shaped their view of the Olympics.
 
Selection
 
Debbie earned her first Olympic spot as part of the quadruple scull going to Athens in 2004.
 
She said: “It was just amazing really. We had an idea that we might be selected. We had been doing well that season, but until you are actually told, that reality doesn’t become reality. For us, the Olympics is the pinnacle of our sport. At that point in my life, I had spent seven years aiming towards that one selection.
 
Adam’s Olympic debut came in 2006 at Turin and he also made the British team for Vancouver 2010.
 
He said: “Selection for me over the two games was really different. For the first one, there wasn’t as much internal competition within the British team, so I had to make sure I was ranked at a certain level to get qualified. The first time when I qualified, there was just a real sense of relief.
 
“The second time we had a really strong squad of athletes and I had not had an easy season. I had injuries and had to get sent home for a stage. When I came back, I had to race off against another guy who was ranked higher than me because he had competed in more races. He was also a good friend.”
 
Adam managed to beat him in each of the three races to earn his spot at Vancouver 2010, but it was a bittersweet experience. Had Adam been fit all season, both of them would have been going as Great Britain would have earned three spots at the games.
 
“I didn’t know what to feel,” said Adam. “In one sense, I was really pleased, but in another sense I was disappointed and upset for him."
 
 

 
 
 
Missing out
 
Debbie has also been on the other side of the selection divide. She was a reserve at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 after coming second in a race-off for the single scull.
 
“That was tough,” she said. “My life plan was to row full time for two years, go to the Sydney Olympics and then get on with my life. I believed at the time that I was good enough and that I should be given an opportunity to try again for that boat. I had been injured, but you know, that’s just sport. If someone is faster than you, then you don’t get that spot."
 
Debbie said this pain was a difficult part of elite sport.
 
She explained: “You train together day in, day out and spend one third of the year abroad sharing hotels and training through the ups and downs together. You know how difficult it is to put yourself through that, pushing yourself to the limits.
 
“There are always more people who train in the group than are going to make the team. There have been many times in my rowing career when it has been between one or two people or myself and someone else to get the last place in the boat. It’s difficult because you have got your own head on when you are seat racing against them, but at the same time, they are your friends, they are your rowing family."
 
Olympic Village
 
An athlete’s first visit to the Olympic Village can be an eye-opening one, which is what the pair found.
 
Adam said: “In Turin, I was so excited to be there at my first games. There has been a lot of talk about Turin not being ready. When I walked into the dining hall, the paint was still drying! You could smell it very strongly. There was scaffolding all around, with people finishing things off.
 
“There was just so much to see and the atmosphere was just incredible. It was a place people had dreamed of and wanted to be most of their lives and now they had made it. There was a real euphoria, particularly around the opening ceremony and the early part of the games.
 
“However, on the day of the opening ceremony at Whistler, near Vancouver, a luger died on a training run. That was incredibly difficult to deal with. As an athlete that slides down the track, you feel that someone should take responsibility. You feel angry, but know you have to slide down there. That was a difficult one to get your head around.”
 
Debbie said the sheer size of a dining hall that could cater for 10,000 athletes had had a real impact.
 
She said: “You really had to say to your mate, ‘I’m going to sit on that red chair there or otherwise you were not going to see them for an hour. It was just such an incredible experience. Each one of those 10,000 athletes are the best in their country at their sport. Wow, what a place to be!”
 
“I can remember the first time I went into the village with a few of my teammates. We were saying ‘look who it is, look who it is’ and pointing people out who in our eyes were famous. Then we thought to ourselves, we’re here too, we are part of this. We have got this amazing privilege of representing our country.”
 
Debbie added: “We used to play guess the sport. We would look around and guess which sport these athletes of all different shapes and sizes played. We would then go and sit next to them and ask them.”
 
Seeing the Olympics from the inside
 
 Adam Pengilly in skeleton bobsleigh action
 
 
Faith
 
For both athletes, faith in Jesus played a key part in their Olympic journeys.
 
Adam said: “One of the challenges I found from a Christian perspective is that around the time of the Olympics, you are so cocooned in your sporting environment. For all of the staff, coaches and performance directors, this is the most important thing in the world. Now for me it wasn’t, but it was easy to get drawn into that way of thinking.
 
“It was important. It was a dream to go to the games and do well and had been since I was a kid. It was always right up there in terms of something I wanted to do, but it wasn’t the most important thing. I had to guard myself against getting drawn into that because when it is the most important thing, you lose perspective on the properly important things in life. That was something I always needed help on from my Christian mates.”
 
Debbie said her faith in Jesus had been her stability and foundation, but it had been a battle for her. Although the Olympic motto of higher, faster, stronger has to play its part in athletes getting selected and winning medals, it must not become their identity.
 
She said: “It can’t become the be all and end all, otherwise it breaks you. You see that all around you. I’m solid in being a child of God and in God’s eyes it doesn’t change anything whether I win medals or lose medals.”
 
Perspective
 
For many athletes, their funding is based on how they perform at world championships and particularly the Olympics. This can create a lot of pressure, but also an opportunity to trust God.
 
Adam said: “For me, remembering the perspective of the Lord, that He had my back whatever, was key. He is always there for me. If the funding went, it would be tough, but regardless, He is there for me and will look after me."
 
Debbie said: “Knowing that medal wasn’t going to define who I was in God’s eyes, knowing that as long as I could give my all and use the gifts and abilities I have been blessed with, that was enough.”
 
Representing Christ on sport's greatest stage
 
Debbie Flood (second left) on the podium at Beijing 2008 alongside teammates (from left) Annie Vernon, Frances Houghton and Katherine Grainger after they won a silver medal
 
 
Competing
 
As a rower, Debbie and her crew would see the crowds as they began their warm up, but at the start of the race 2km away, it was calm and quiet.
 
She said: “Every seven minutes, you will hear the beep as a race starts and a bit of noise as they come past, that’s it. The minute before you start, all you can hear is the nervous breathing of athletes.
 
“You’re waiting and watching for that red light. In Athens, it was seven years of training coming down to one six-minute race. In Beijing, it was 11 and in London, 15.”
 
Debbie added: “I approached racing with a really confident mindset. I just love racing. I feel so free in just going out there and absolutely giving it my all. I always went into racing thinking I could win. That was my personality.”
 
For Adam, the skeleton bob meant four one-minute runs producing a cumulative time.
 
He said:  “It was about not making mistakes and being solid all the way down, rather than being exceptional. When I competed, I was always really nervous. I couldn’t leave my nerves on the bank like Debbie or in the snow or a pile of ice. It was about trying to control things. I did that by praying for safety for everybody and that I would perform well. Then I would go through my race routine.”
 
Adam was the first man to go in the skeleton at Turin.
 
He said: “It was a real privilege and meant of course that I was leading the Olympics for a couple of minutes.”
 
Representing Christ on sport's greatest stage
 
The start of the London 2012 rowing course
 
After your event
 
Both rowing and skeleton traditionally take place during the first week of the Olympics, which meant Debbie and Adam had lots of time to enjoy the rest of the games afterwards.
 
Debbie said: “Often in rowing, you stay in a different venue nearer to the lake. When you get to the village, it really means that you can enjoy the atmosphere and the free stuff that all athletes like!"
 
Team GB athletes must wear their official kit at all times, which means they get a lot of it.
 
Debbie said: “They have got to give you enough kit to last for the two weeks. You get 40kg of it. It’s like Christmas!”
 
Adam said: “I always liked clothing trades. I had to get some Jamaican bobsleigh kit.” 
 
However, this period can be tough if you are not happy with how you have done.
 
Adam said: “I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I could have in Turin because I didn’t perform well. I was really close to a medal with one round to go and then made a mess of one corner. I was gutted, really gutted, probably for about three months.
 
“I think at that stage, my perspective wasn’t in the right place because it took me so long to get over it. I struggled afterwards, but when someone helped me look at things in the right way, it was really helpful and helped me grow as a Christian.
 
“My focus was too much on my own selfish ambition and desire rather than enjoying these amazing gifts that God had given me and doing a sport that I loved. Hurtling down a mountain at 90mph is just so much fun – as long as you don’t hit the wall too much. It is just a brilliant gift from God!”
 
Adam did go on to win a world silver medal in 2009.
 
He said: “In an eternal context, it just doesn’t matter. I realised that years later when I did achieve the sort of things I wanted in terms of medals at major championships. The emotions are incredible because you think a lifetime’s goal has been achieved. But you feel amazing for about an hour and a half, at least I did, then it’s just like ‘is that all it is?’.
 
“God moulds us through great times and bad times. For me, it was a real lesson about how our performance doesn’t make a difference in light of eternity.”
 
Debbie experienced a variety of emotions after competing, but was determined to keep everything in perspective.
 
She said: “In Beijing, we were gutted because we hadn’t won, but we had had a really good race, so we were still able to really enjoy that second week and be extremely proud of ourselves that we had won a medal.
 
“In London, to make the final for us was a great achievement, but we didn’t perform as we wanted to in the final. We knew we were better than that and had a disappointing race. But it was a great blessing to be at the Olympic Games and have that amazing privilege of representing our country, it’s not something that many people have the chance to do.
 
“In light of eternity, my medals will not come with me when I pass away. Jesus is the most important thing that I need to know in my life.”
 
Seeing the Olympics from the inside
 
Adam Pengilly competing at Turin 2006
 
Partying
 
Traditionally, the Olympic Village can be a place of real excess as athletes let their hair down after four years of hard training. Debbie said it was easy to get drawn into this, but as a follower of Jesus, she knew she was called to live differently.
 
She said: “For me, when I got to a certain point in the party and the drink was flowing, I needed to know when to stop and step out. There were times when I got that wrong, when I went too much to the other side, but that’s not how God wants us to be. For me I’m not just there to represent my country, I’m there representing Christ and that’s got to come first and foremost.”
 
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Ed Mezzetti close crop

Ed Mezzetti, City of York Athletic Club
Ed runs for City of York Athletic Club and is Digital Content Manager for Christians in Sport. He is a member of St Thomas' Church, York