From: The Athlete Inside: The Transforming Poer of Hope, Tenacity, an Faith, (Chapter 8), Copyright © 2020 Sue Reynolds, Admin. Broadleaf Books. Reprinted by permission.
A spiritual journey was the furthest thing from my mind when I started dieting and exercising. But when I had lost about ninety pounds, around the time I ran my first 5K, my weight loss started to feel a bit surreal. I’d look at myself in the mirror and shake my head in disbelief. I mean, who loses ninety pounds? I had the strangest sense that my journey was happening to me rather than because of my actions. It seemed like I was riding a magic carpet, with someone else doing the driving. I was confused. In the very
back of my mind, I started to wonder if my weight loss had something to do with God.
I grew up in a Christian family. We went to church every Sunday, but we never read the Bible or talked about our faith as a family. Before dinner, we said a prayer: “Thank you, God, for this food. Bless it to our use and us for thy service. Amen.” But that was it. Outside of praying before dinner, we never spoke about God or our faith. While my family didn’t pray out loud, I often prayed silently within myself. As a child, those prayers usually involved me asking God for something. “Please, God, let me learn how to ride my bike. Please, God, let me ace this test. Please, God, let me marry the right man.” In college,
I wasn’t inspired by organized religion and stopped attending church, but I kept a journal where I wrote to God about the meaning of life and everything else that confused me. Whenever I faced a practical or ethical question, I discussed it with God in my journal.
My husband also is a Christian. When we first started dating after college, he took me to a church service. After my years of not attending church, it felt wonderful to hear familiar prayers and hymns. I felt at home. We raised both of our sons as Christians, but as in my family, discussions about faith happened only in church. On one occasion, I tried to change that situation. I asked my husband and our sons to share the things for which they were grateful. Then I wrote a family prayer that included each of their words and made copies to read together as a family before dinner. Unfortunately, the prayer was lengthy, and every time I suggested we recite it, I heard, “Oh, mom. Do we have to say that prayer?” Twenty years later, our sons still talk about the family prayer, so I know my effort made an impression. At the time, however, prayer as a family was not going to
happen. Instead, I continued to pray my silent prayers with God on a daily basis and in church each weekend.
A few years before I started losing weight, I experienced a strong season of doubt that began with a friend and I having conversations about faith. As we drove to various meetings across the state we explained our views to each other. I shared that I believed
in God and was a follower of Jesus. He was an atheist, and as I talked about my Christian beliefs, he presented logical, scientific explanations that contradicted the existence of God. He wasn’t trying to make me into a nonbeliever; he was just presenting his beliefs as I presented mine.
I wasn’t sure how to explain my belief in God. I finally said, “See that Coke can? It exists, right? How do you know that it exists? You can see it. You can feel it. That’s how it is for me with God. I can sense God’s existence. He just is.” I never thought a Coke can would
help me explain God’s existence, but I needed something concrete, and there it was. The can existed; God existed. To me, each was as concrete as the other.
Our discussions made me think about how to actually know if God exists. Maybe there were ways of knowing that something exists besides scientific proof. I thought about beauty as a language that conveys things that science cannot—sunrises, paintings, and especially music. I loved to let the music at church wash over me as the congregation sang in unison. God seemed to be wrapping me in divine warmth in those moments. But the more I talked to my atheist friend, the more my faith started to fade.
Over time, I realized how far my faith had fallen and didn’t like what was happening. I still believed in God and went to church every weekend, but I stopped praying daily and started hiding my Christianity in fear that I would be judged by others. Worst of all, I
stopped hearing God’s words during scripture readings and sermons at church. Instead, I heard my atheist friend’s scientific explanations regarding stories in the Bible. I started seriously doubting my faith. Maybe God really was just something people all over the world made up because they feared death. Maybe core convictions like love and
peace were passed on from one generation to another because they helped people avoid and resolve conflicts. Doubts raced through my mind each time I listened to scripture in church.
Then one day, I had had enough. Just as I had done with eating, I said, “Enough,” to my doubts about God, and I decided to change. I did believe in God. I wanted to live as a Christian. I vowed to have the courage to stand tall for my faith and all the things that went with it—the gifts of love, joy, kindness, and peace. It didn’t matter to me that I couldn’t use science to prove the existence of God. In my heart I knew, and I wanted to return to living with that belief as a part of my daily life.
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The spiritual trip back to God was difficult, but I found God waiting with open arms. Someone once told me that when people return to God, God rejoices with back flips. I hoped God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were all doing back flips as I returned to being a more active participant in my faith.
My first step in my journey was to purchase a cross necklace as a symbol of my faith. It took several months to muster up the courage to go into a jewelry store to shop for a cross. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. My faith had always been private, and I didn’t want to announce it to the world. Then it took several more months to find just the right one—a cross that no one would see but I would know was there. I finally found a small gold disk hanging on a thin gold chain. From a distance, it just looked like a little disk. But up close, you could see miniature diamonds forming the shape of a cross. I wore that tiny disk beneath my clothes where no one could see it, but I knew it was there, and it reminded me to be strong.
As I continued moving forward in my triathlon journey, faith continued to become a stronger presence in my life. Our older son (who would later become a pastor) started talking to me about God. The discussion was awkward at first. He pointed out that our family never talked about God and told me that faith had become an important part of his life that he wanted to share with me. He spoke of the joy that comes with believing and told me that God loves me. He started quoting the Bible all the time. I felt a little bombarded with scripture. I didn’t know the Bible well enough to be able to participate
in that part of our conversation, and I felt intimidated. But after each talk, I’d think about my son’s words and the verses he quoted. With time, they became comfortable to me.
One of the most pivotal moments in my faith journey happened right after the USA Triathlon National Championship. In an email, I told Coach Brant that I had been afraid of letting people down. He responded, “As far as disappointing people, forget that altogether, Sue. It doesn’t matter what ‘others’ think. If we go through life worrying
about others, we will never accomplish anything, and we will always feel like we don’t measure up. You’re perfect the way God made you. Enjoy what he’s allowing you to do. He’s your only judge, and He loves you regardless.”
When I read Coach Brant’s words, I felt as though I had been hit in the head with a two-by-four. It was as though the sky had opened, and God was saying, “Listen to me. I am talking to you. I am reaching out to you.” I froze. And then I said to myself, Whoa! What just happened? First my son talking about God’s love, and then my coach, who I hadn’t even known was a Christian. That was powerful.
Several days later, during a coached workout at our YMCA, I mustered up the courage to ask Coach Brant about his statement. As we sat on workout mats, he talked quietly about his faith. Talking out loud about God was so new to me, I wasn’t sure what words to use. I continued to ask Coach Brant questions about his faith, specifically about the Bible. How often did he read the Bible? How did he memorize all those verses? Coach Brant was patient and nurturing. It seemed strange to be seeking spiritual guidance from a person who was younger than my sons. I told Coach Brant that he should be a pastor. He responded that we are all called to preach in our daily lives, and he explained that coaching was the vehicle that God had given him so he could be available if and when others were ready to talk about God.
Discussions about spirituality are not always easy. During one discussion about salvation with Coach Brant, we struggled to understand each other’s beliefs, and we each turned to our clergy for guidance. Coach Brant wrote to me, “These conversations end many relationships. I’m glad we have a relationship that can stand the hard stuff. Even if we don’t end up seeing eye to eye, being able to work through this conversation is something most people in the world can’t do. Thank you for being willing to work through it.”
As my conversations about faith continued with my son and coach, I started having a stronger and stronger sense that God had something to do with my weight loss and fitness journey. But why? What did God want me to do? And why me? I asked God, “What do you want me to do with these gifts?”
God didn’t speak out loud to me, but I sensed God’s answer was “These gifts are just for you.” That seemed selfish to me. My church taught that we should use our gifts to serve others. I wondered if God wanted me to start a nonprofit to help people lose weight or
gain fitness. Over and over, I prayed and asked what God wanted but kept sensing the same response: “These gifts are just for you.”
And then one morning in church, it all made sense. Our pastor explained that God actively reaches out to each of us, and one of the ways God does this is through gifts. A light bulb lit up in my head. That was it. God was reaching out to me, seeking my attention. Whoa! God wanted my attention. I felt little and big at the same time. I was humbled that God saw enough value in me to reach out to me, but I also felt undeserving of God’s attention. Mostly, I felt incredibly loved. Even though I had doubted God’s existence and stopped praying, God wanted to have a relationship with me. God was calling me.
The blessings that God showered upon me were piling up: my fitness; the joy of swimming, biking, and running; the happiness I felt during triathlons; stronger relationships with my husband and sons. I realized I had been taking other gifts for granted—most notably, having the freedom to pursue my dreams.
Women in other parts of the world, like my friend Salome Kanini (Sally), struggle to be able to participate in the sports they love. Sally, who lives in Nairobi, and I started sending messages back and forth on Facebook after I learned about her efforts to organize the first bike ride for women in Kenya. She explained that in the Kenyan
culture, cycling is not considered “ladylike” and is frowned upon for women and girls. Boys can ride a bike to school, but girls have to walk. Men can commute by bike to work, but women do not have that means of transportation. I did a little research online and found that some Kenyan schools had even refused to accept donated bikes
because the gift stipulated that a percentage of the bikes had to go to girls. In an area where many people depend on walking, a bike can make a huge difference. Therefore, by getting women involved in cycling events, Sally is a pioneer striving to change a culture for the benefit of others.
Sally named the women’s ride Dada (Swahili for “sister”) Ride. She not only had to organize the event, but also had to find bikes and helmets for the women and teach them how to ride bikes, since they had not learned how to ride a bike as children. The first Dada Ride was a huge success. It soon evolved into monthly Dada Rides. Then Dada Rides became a registered nongovernmental, nonprofit, and nonpolitical organization with the mission of promoting women and girl’s participation in cycling for healthy lifestyles. In addition to the monthly rides, Dada Rides now offers classes in bike maintenance and bike races for women. I deeply admire Sally’s courage and commitment to her dreams, as well as the gifts she has given to the women around her.
Of the gifts I have received, the one that most touched me was the kindness that people have showered upon me since the very first steps in my fitness journey. Many, many people encouraged and supported me throughout my weight loss, fitness, and now spiritual journeys when times were tough. Over and over, I experienced kindness
that brought tears to my eyes, often from perfect strangers who showed up at just the right moment and said just the right thing to keep me moving forward. Then they disappeared.
The first stranger who showered me with kindness was a woman who passed me on her bike almost every day when I first started running at 280 pounds. Each time she passed, she gave me a big smile and shouted, “Lookin’ good!” At 280 pounds, I was pretty sure that I was not “lookin’ good.” I was fully aware of my bouncing belly as I ran down the road, and I was sure that my gait looked more like a shuffle than a run. But her words boosted my confidence. Each time I ran, I hoped to see her. I never learned her name. I never spoke to her. She will never know the impact she had on my life.
The blessing of kindness entered my life again at the start of the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon. When I approached the start line at 190 pounds, I found thirty-four thousand people waiting for the race to begin. Their brightly colored T-shirts and jackets bounced as they jumped up and down, waiting nervously for the race to start. Each runner stood in a corral created by ropes that stretched across the road to separate the runners by anticipated finish times. The fastest runners were in the first corral. I was assigned to a corral in the back, right in front of the “cleanup bus.” That bus would travel
at the slowest pace a person could run and still make the race’s cutoff time. If you couldn’t keep in front of the bus, the officials would make you board the bus and ride back to the race start.
I literally had nightmares about staying in front of that bus. In my nightmare, the bus was an angry monster with a huge mouth. It chased the slower runners, and I was one of them. I ran as fast as I could but was losing ground. I feared being eaten and then sitting in the bus with my head hung in shame as it drove me back to the race start.
I found my corral in front of the bus, but there was no room inside the roped-off space. People were literally shoulder to shoulder without an inch between them. I stared helplessly at the mass of people. How was I going to squeeze in? Suddenly, a path seemed to appear among the people, leading to a man in a white shirt and white
cap. He was motioning for me to join him. I ducked under the rope and stood by his side.
My nerves began getting the best of me, and I was fighting tears. I had only run 9 miles in training. Coach Brant assured me that my total weekly miles and the excitement of being close to the finish line would carry me the last 4 miles, but I was not sure I could make the half-marathon’s 13.1 miles. On the verge of a meltdown, I started chatting with the man in the white cap. He was kind. He told me that science had proven that runners are capable of covering three times their longest distance in training. I did the math. Three times 9 miles equaled 27 miles. Then 13.1 miles should be doable. His words filled me with confidence. I started to feel calm. I would make it.
Just before the start, he assured me that everything would be fine. When I turned to thank him for his kindness, he was gone. I skimmed the crowd, looking for his white cap. No white cap. He had disappeared. Like the woman on the bike, he would never know the impact he’d had on my life.
The most amazing kindness came later in my journey from a man that I met in Clermont, Florida, a few days before a triathlon I raced there in my third season. When my husband and I arrived in Clermont, we drove straight to the beach at Lake Louisa, so I could do a
swim workout prior to checking into our hotel. My husband stayed in the parking lot to guard my bike, which was on the back of our car. I walked alone on a boardwalk through a swampy area of cypress trees and came upon a beach that was completely deserted—no lifeguard, no sunbathers, no picnickers, no children, no boats. Not a person was in sight. The water, stained by cypress trees, was the color of Coca-Cola. And then I saw a sign that said, “Beware of alligators.”
I stood under a clear sky on the deserted beach and thought about swimming in a lake with alligators. I knew they would be more scared of me than I was of them, but I worried that I’d step on one or get between a mama alligator and her baby. I knew that this
fear belonged in the Do Not Think about These Things box, but I couldn’t get past it. I had not missed a workout in two years, but swimming with alligators at a deserted beach was not going to happen. No way. I went into the bathhouse with my head hung low and
changed into my swimsuit, although I was sure that I was not getting in the water.
When I came out, I was surprised to see a white speedboat sitting on the sand. I hadn’t heard it pull up. A man and a woman were gazing at the sparkling water of the deserted lake. As we chatted, I explained that I needed to do a swim workout in preparation for my race, but I was afraid to go in the water because of the alligators. The man said, “I’ll protect you from the alligators.” He explained that he’d grown up in the area and was not afraid of alligators. “I’m going to stand in the water while you swim. I’ll watch for alligators, and if I see any, I’ll scare them away.” Then he walked into the lake until he was standing in chest-deep water where the marshy grass stopped growing.
Cautiously, I swam back and forth across the open water. Every time I took a breath, I could see the man scanning the water, looking for alligators. He stood in the lake for my entire swim workout. Later, his wife told me that she had experienced a spiritual aha moment in her life, and he had been a big part of it. I don’t know their names. I will probably never see them again. Like the woman on the bike and the man at the half marathon, they will never know the impact of their kindness.
Through these experiences and many others, I began to learn about the power of kindness. I started to understand that two words or some other small act of kindness can make a huge difference, can change a life. The amount of kindness that was being showered on me felt surreal. It was raining kindness. I started wondering who all
these kind people were.
I brought this question to Bob, the man who’d set up Brian and me on our first date. Bob had recently become a Christian deacon. Over lunch with Brian, Bob, and Bob’s wife, I shyly told Bob through tears about my weight loss and fitness journeys and all the
kind strangers who kept popping into my life. I asked if they were angels. He just smiled. As we were saying good-bye, he told me, “Keep seeing the face of God in others.” A light bulb went off in my head. These kind people were the face of God.
With that new understanding, I began seeing God’s love in people’s words and actions all around me. God was everywhere. I found myself looking up from time to time and quietly whispering words that a new friend had shared with me: “I know this is you, God. Thank you.” I also began realizing that God’s love can flow from me to others, too. I hid two small decals on my bike. One read, “Go with God.” The other said, “Let your light shine.”
I decided that while God’s gifts of weight loss and fitness were “just for me,” I wanted to use those gifts to do good deeds, to help others, and to be the face of God for others like the woman on the bike had been for me. I hoped that through small acts of everyday
kindness and by sharing my story, I might help others move forward with a change they wanted to make in their life, whatever that change might be.
As the spiritual side of my journey was unfolding, I kept training and preparing for races. The World Triathlon Series race in Chicago and the USA Triathlon National Championship in Milwaukee were major turning points for me. Having determined that I was near the middle of the pack among women my age, I looked forward with excitement to training as an elite triathlete in preparation for the next season. I wondered how far I could go.